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Vanessa Silva e Silva

How one PhD Student is Helping Hospitals Secure Life-Saving Organ Donations

Vanessa Silva e Silva, a fourth-year PhD student in the School of Nursing, had applied for a fellowship from the Kidney Foundation of Canada and the Kidney Research Scientist Core Education and National Training Program (KRESCENT) and was expecting to hear the committee’s decision by the end of May. In the first week of June, she still had heard nothing and figured it meant bad news: rejections always come out later than acceptances.

She was so sure she hadn’t gotten the grant that she broke the bad news to Dr. Joan Almost, one of her mentors on the Nursing faculty, in one of their regular meetings. Dr. Almost said that in some cases there is a delay in results being announced, and she offered sympathy and encouragement. Even if the fellowship didn’t come through, there would be other grants to apply for.

But then, as Vanessa walked down the stairs of the building after her meeting with Dr. Almost, she got an email notification on her phone. She had heard back about the KRESCENT fellowship – and she’d received funding.

Vanessa quickly turned around and went back up the stairs to tell Dr. Almost, who had also received the email. The sympathies of a moment before became congratulations.

Vanessa’s fellowship from KRESCENT will fund her dissertation research on organ and tissue donation, and the fellowship will enable her to work on her research full time. While she is excited about this aspect of the funding, she is just as thrilled that the fellowship comes with an opportunity to participate in KRESCENT’s training program. As a trainee, she will be able to participate in workshops on topics like grant writing and transdisciplinary research, and she will be able to take part in a journal club that is designed to enhance critical reading skills of academic studies.

As for her dissertation, Vanessa will be using her KRESCENT funds to conduct a social network analysis of the organ and tissue donation programs in several hospitals in Ontario. Through her research, she aims to find out which collaboration and communication patterns lead to the most successful donation programs. Moreover, she wants to understand how a variety of relationships affect organ donation rates.

Vanessa’s research will have four methods of data collection that she will use at each hospital she investigates. First, she will review the policies that the hospital has in place for organ donation. After this step, she will have the donation coordinator answer a questionnaire about their work. Then, she will observe the hospital’s donation process in action. And finally, she will interview all of the healthcare professionals involved in the donation process at that hospital. Her goal is to understand what practices are most successful in helping hospitals – and, ultimately, patients – secure the donations that can save lives.

Organ donation is Vanessa’s central academic and professional interest, but she found her passion almost by accident. As an undergraduate at the Federal University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, where Vanessa is from originally, she went to the meeting of a journal club one evening because her older sister asked her to go with her. The topic of the meeting was organ donation, and, through it, Vanessa volunteered to help conduct a study that gauged the opinions of local high-school students on the issue.

After graduating from university, she worked as a primary care nurse before deciding that she wanted to devote her energy to donations. From there, she pursued a series of opportunities that deepened her understanding of donations and the processes that make them possible. She earned a certificate in donation from a postgraduate program; she worked in an organ donation centre in Sao Paulo and then a large hospital; and she earned a master’s degree in nursing.

For her master’s thesis, she evaluated the organ donation program she was working for, which involved a nurse-led process that significantly improved the number of organ donors. Significantly, her thesis also made a case for the importance of organ donation programs, and her research ultimately helped the government to create and approve legislation for public funding of Organ and Tissue Donation Coordinators (registered nurses) in public trauma centres.

After all of these experiences, Vanessa knew she wanted to pursue a doctorate in nursing, and she decided that she wanted to complete her studies abroad, either in North America or Europe. She ultimately chose to study in Canada, and she picked Queen’s over other programs because of its reputation – both in Canada and around the world. She knew it would be an institution that could help her achieve her academic and professional goals. On top of that, she was impressed by how warm and inviting all of the faculty members whom she talked to were. She remembers how promptly and enthusiastically everyone responded to her emails at Queen’s when she was making her decision.

Now, in her fourth year in the program, she is ready to embark on the research project that she came to Queen’s to conduct, and she has the funding to make that research possible.

I am thrilled to see Vanessa embark on her work, and I am keen to follow her progress. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a reminder that in Ontario, you need to register to be an organ donor – click this link to find out more.

Do you have any thoughts on or experiences with organ donation that you feel comfortable sharing with Vanessa as she conducts her study? If so, please let us know in the comments below.

Thank you to Andrew Willson for his assistance in preparing this blog. 

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