Blog » Mary McAfee – Specialist Nurse in Organ Donation, NHS Blood & Transplant

Mary McAfee – Specialist Nurse in Organ Donation, NHS Blood & Transplant

13th December 2018

The Post: Specialist Nurse in Organ Donation, NHS Blood & Transplant, Causeway Hospital, Coleraine

The Post Holder: Mary McAfee


A varied career in nursing has led Mary McAfee to her current role as a specialist nurse for organ donation.

Give a brief outline of your career to date.

I began my career as a student nurse in the Belfast City Hospital in January 1981. From there my first job as a staff nurse was night duty at the Waveney Hospital in Ballymena. 18 months later I transferred to Intensive Care and remained there until 1992 when I moved to Intensive Care in Coleraine. I continued my career there until 2009 when I was successful in gaining a Specialist Nurse for Organ Donation post at the Causeway Hospital.

What was your favourite subject at school?

History, Geography and Home Economics were all favourites.

Did you go on to further/higher education, if so what did you study and where?

Yes, I have my Diploma in Nursing. While working in Intensive Care I completed Specialist Courses in Renal Nursing and Critical Care Nursing at Queen’s University Belfast.

How did you get into your area of work?

It was by accident that an opportunity to work in Intensive Care presented itself. As a critical care nurse, I had experience of caring for many patients who donated their organs following their death. While providing end of life care for these patients and their families I witnessed how organ donation gave them much comfort in the knowledge that they were helping others through the gift of donation. This difficult decision empowered families and this experience had a great influence on my decision to apply for the job.

Is this what you always wanted to do?

Yes, I always wanted a career in nursing, many of my family were nurses including my mum. I was well aware of the hard work and long hours involved but it was the diversity of the role that drew me in. When you start a career in nursing you have a perception of how you would like your career to progress but in my experience it is best to keep an open mind for when opportunities present themselves that you may not expect.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?

All specialist nurses for organ donation in the UK come from a nursing background. It is essential to have worked as a senior nurse within critical care or emergency medicine and have a post basic qualification in one of these areas. It is also essential to have experience in providing excellent end of life care to patients and their families. Empathy, resilience, excellent communication skills and the ability to work to overcome barriers to donation and nurture a culture in which donation is seen as part of end of life care is also important.

My employer provides all new appointments with classroom-based education, together with workshop and skills training for six months..

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

There are many qualities you need for this role. It is essential to be able to communicate in a sensitive manner and provide emotional support for bereaved families at a time of great distress. You need to be able to work autonomously, have excellent communication and organisational skills, and most of all demonstrate resilience and the ability to manage change in an area of medicine that is always evolving.

What does a typical day entail?

Each day is different as you can imagine, I have an embedded role in Causeway Hospital during 9-5 working hours Monday – Friday where I deliver teaching, organ donation promotion and support critical care staff to identify and refer patients when they have the potential to donate organs for transplantation.

I also participate in providing on call availability for donor referrals overnight and weekends. While fulfilling this role I speak to families providing information and support to assist them to make a decision regarding donation. It is always helpful when families already know their loved one’s wishes when asked to make a final decision. When families wish to either honour their loved one’s wishes to donation or decide on their behalf I plan and organise all aspects of the process.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?

Donation does not minimise the grief of bereaved families. However, organ donation may be a positive option that can provide some comfort at a time of great distress for bereaved families. If I can provide some support and relief by fulfilling the wishes of the person or their family through the gift of donation, then I take comfort that I have done something positive for them.

I also enjoy the variety of work that my role involves. I could be involved in either organ donation, teaching nursing staff, promoting the Organ Donation Register or, delivering organ donation awareness to schools and workplaces.

There are also many challenges. The job can be physically and emotionally stressful when you are on call for long periods, but it is also very rewarding.

Why is what you do important?

In the UK three people die each day waiting on an organ transplant. Here in Northern Ireland 14 people died last year waiting on a lifesaving transplant. Only 45% of the population in Northern Ireland have registered their wish to be a donor on the UK NHS Organ Donor Register. We need more organ donors so that everyone who needs a transplant may have one.

One of the biggest rewards is, the belief that, you are giving bereaved families something positive to focus on after the death of a loved one, contributing to saving lives through the gift of donation.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?

My job can be very demanding and challenging at times. However, I enjoy the fact that each day is different and there are many rewards for providing such a valuable service. If you are interested in a career that involves an innovative way of working and feel passionate about organ donation then this is the career for you.

If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?

I’ve always wanted to be a nurse but if it wasn’t possible then my second career choice would be something involving travelling. My ideal job would be working in travel journalism. No matter where I work it would have to involve variety as I love that each day is different in my current role.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?

I was once told that “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something” and this is an important message. It is also vital to ask for help and guidance as with any new role it can be daunting at the beginning.

Describe your ideal day off.

I get the greatest pleasure from spending time with my family. I also like socialising with my extended family and friends. I love travelling and experiencing different cultures and could not let a summer go by without a holiday. I also enjoy reading and listening to music.

Northern Ireland’s annual Organ Donation Discussion Day took place earlier this week. Find out more about organ donation at

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