Hope, Strength, Courage: Mementos for the Rest of the Journey



Pictured from left to right: Lauren Dick, Leah Busch Rockel, Erin Tims, and Jen Garrett.

Brazee Street Studios

 

The transplant team at UC Health brings hope to hundreds of patients each year through life-saving organ transplant surgeries, along with breakthrough research and innovations.  But the experts at UC Health know that clinical care is just one step in a longer journey for their patients.

For organ donors and recipients, the emotional journey is just as important as the physical one. And they are finding new encouragement and inspiration during the post-transplant journey through the Hope Stones Project, a program founded in 2018 by UC Health transplant clinicians Jen Garrett and Lauren Dick.

Partnering with Brazee Street Studios in Oakley, UC Health transplant teams create colorful, fused-glass Hope Stones by hand and gift them to each living organ donor and recipient when they leave the hospital. Each stone is unique in color and shape, sporting uneven edges representing the ups and downs that often accompany the transplant journey. Each Hope Stone is also packaged with a handmade card that includes a brief description of the Hope Stone, words of encouragement from other organ recipients, and handwritten words of inspiration from a transplant team member. Also included in each heartfelt gift package is a colorful paper flower designed by transplant nurse Erin Tims. The flowers are made from recycled materials, including repurposed medication vial caps.

“Our biggest goal with this program is to help our patients adjust to the emotional aspects of organ transplantation,” explains Lauren, a social worker and a member of the UC Health transplant team for four years.

What inspired Lauren and Jen, a 20-year physician assistant and a member of the transplant team since 2013, to establish the Hope Stones program was a story about a Toronto intensive care nurse who, over the course of nearly three decades, collected discarded medicine caps and lids, IV tubes and syringe covers that she and her team turned into a huge, vibrantly colorful mosaic mural, now hanging at Toronto General Hospital. Each piece of the mural is meant to symbolize lives saved and lives lost.

“After I read the article, I thought about how we could do something cool, with an art focus, for our transplant patients,” Jen recalls.

She and Lauren met with Leah Busch Rockel, director at Brazee Street Studios – considered one of the Cincinnati area’s most vibrant creative communities – and brainstorming commenced almost immediately. The rest is Hope Stone history. The basic thought behind the stone, designed by studio owner Sandy Gross, is that one colorful piece of glass represents the donor and one represents the recipient, and the stones come together to create a new memento symbolizing each life transformed through organ transplantation.

“A key component of the program is that the stones are made by members of the transplant care team as a team-building experience,” Lauren notes. “It’s an extremely special moment when we hand a Hope Stone to a patient because each stone is made by one of us and, like each patient, is near and dear to us.

“The transplant journey can be daunting,” she continues. The initial prospect of getting on a list to receive an organ can be time consuming – some patients have to go through multiple rounds of medical testing for anywhere from three to six months before they qualify for being placed on a list. And then there is the emotional wait for a match. Once a match is found – either through a deceased organ donor or a living organ donor – and the transplant surgery is performed, a period of physical as well as emotional recovery occurs.

An organ transplant is a lifelong journey, Lauren and Jen agree.

“Patients have to be very serious about it. It’s not a surgery when you just come back two weeks later for a quick checkup,” Lauren notes. “So, what we’re hoping is that when patients look at their Hope Stones, they will remember all aspects of the journey, how they’ve already overcome some very tough obstacles, and that will give them strength as the post-transplant journey continues.”

“We give patients the Hope Stone as something small to carry with them to keep them on the upswing,” Jen adds. “We feel it’s been a very positive program so far.”

Alissa Fink could not agree more. Fink, and Steven, her boyfriend of 6 ½ years, each received a Hope Stone last year after he donated one of his kidneys for Fink’s second kidney transplant. Although the kidney she received from a deceased donor during the initial operation in 2016 – a kidney/pancreas transplant – failed, the pancreas continued to work just fine, Fink recalls. She feels extremely fortunate and thankful that when the first kidney eventually failed, Steven was a match.

“The stones are so meaningful because no two are alike,” Fink says. “I think it’s really cool, because we can each look at them and remember our individual experiences. I just think once you go through [an organ transplant], or a loved one goes through it, you have your own special take on it. Seeing the stones and reading the words of encouragement on the card help you to get through the rest of the journey.”

And what a journey hers has been!

Fink is currently keeping their Hope Stones in a jewelry box, but is planning on eventually creating a special shadow box to display them. She has also visited Brazee Street Studios to make Hope Stones to help other patients along their own transplant journeys.

“I feel like I am finally OK now, like I’m out of the woods,” the 28-year-old former teacher and tutor says. Fink hopes to possibly put her educational skills to work for the National Kidney Foundation one day. “I want to do something to give back. I just want to give back now.”

For Richard Ryan, who received a liver transplant in July 2018, his Hope Stone symbolizes that special part inside him now that wasn’t there before, giving him new life.

“And it has given my family a new life with me,” says Ryan, who wears his Hope Stone on a chain around his neck so that the special memento is always close to his heart. “It’s a constant reminder – as if I need a reminder – to pay it forward on behalf of my donor. I am blessed beyond measure.”

 

For more information on the UC Health Transplant Program, visit uchealth.com/transplant/