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Surgical Center Highlights Commitment to Innovation at Gift of Life Michigan

Updated: May 19, 2021

Headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI, Gift of Life Michigan is an organ procurement organization that facilitates organ and tissue recovery from deceased donors. Gift of Life is the state’s only federally designated organ and tissue recovery program, providing all services necessary for organ donation to occur in Michigan. Servicing 176 critical care hospitals, 9 transplant centers, and 83 medical examiner counties, Gift of Life is a nonprofit organization that acts as a liaison between donor hospitals and transplant centers for the entire state, serving 9.9 million people.

Incorporated in 1971 by Michigan transplant surgeons to provide a network for sharing kidneys, today Gift of Life recovers more than 1,000 organs every year for transplantation from 370 or more donors, saving hundreds of lives. In addition, bone, skin, and other tissues recovered to help improve the lives of thousands of ill or seriously injured people. Celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, Gift of Life is looking back on their incredible growth over the years and the addition just several years ago of a state of-the-art surgical center connected to their administrative offices and call center.

The surgical center has been pivotal in expanding their mission of maximizing organ and tissue donation, but keeping with their core values: Determination, Compassion, Purpose and Professional. “I am extremely proud of this organization and all the good we’ve done for others in our first 50 years,” said Dorrie Dils, chief executive officer at Gift of Life.

“We have helped save thousands of lives and touched so many more. I hope those who came before us are proud of the organization they created and all that we have done – and continue to do – to honor life through donation.”

If you were to visit Gift of Life, you would find the organization’s mission and values proudly displayed on various walls within the facility including just outside the entrance to their dedicated surgical center, which is part of a 40,000 square foot addition completed in 2016. Having their own operational surgical center has allowed Gift of Life to streamline their processes while reinforcing their commitment to their vision.

For many years prior to having their own surgical center, Gift of Life had always wanted to perform recovery internally to maximize the number of recoveries while keeping costs down. Even when they were using an independent surgical center, recoveries were performed by their own staff. With this goal in mind, they began to track their operations and entered into discussions with Mid-America Transplant in St. Louis, MO, who had previously opened their own surgical center, and ultimately used their successes and data to propose the construction of a new facility to their Board. They officially got permission in 2014 and opened their surgical doors in 2016. They started with tissue recoveries in March and performed their first organ recovery in June of that year.

The facility, which takes brain death donors only, has four surgical suites (two organ and two tissue), a three bed ICU, a tissue examining room, and extensive testing and monitoring equipment, including an EKG machine, but no CT scan or cardiac catherization lab. These services are provided by the nearby, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. They work with Eversight, also in Ann Arbor, to manage cornea and eye donation. Gift of Life also contracts with local Huron Valley Ambulance (HVA) to transport all donors. For continuity, all HVA personnel are trained on the Gift of Life surgical center protocols.

The surgical center is overseen by Cindy Zarate, a registered nurse with 33 years of critical care (ICU) experience, 19 of those at Gift of Life. “It is an excellent facility, but it is our staff that truly makes us successful,” said Sheila Alston, director of Clinical Services at Gift of Life.

“We have a compassionate, dedicated team committed to celebrating life and honoring the wishes of donors and their families.”

Gift of Life has 224 full and part-time employees. That includes 42 donation coordinators, 15 organ recovery specialists, 26 tissue procurement specialists, and 26 call center staff which includes tissue donation coordinators and referral intake representatives. Having the surgical center under the same roof as the call center allows for highly efficient education and training for Gift of Life employees, once again keeping the organization focused on their core values. This instruction extends to the over 35 hospital and family services employees

working across the state, of which over 80% have extensive experience in critical care. With each employee focused on the organization’s vision and much of the Gift of Life medical staff consisting of paramedics, RN’s and individuals from the Human Donation Science

Program at the University of Toledo, the overall mission of the organization is well understood.

The surgical center proved advantageous when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan in March of 2020. With an in-house surgical center and dedicated staff, Gift of Life was able to move donors out of hospitals as quickly as possible after initial COVID tests came back negative. Their goal was within 10 hours. Despite the added concerns, procedures and restrictions, recoveries at the surgical center increased in 2020.

There were 31 donors in April and 156 recoveries at the center last year. In total, Gift of Life facilitated 1.048 transplants from 374 organ donors as well as 1,548 tissue donors. Obviously the COVID-19 virus resulted in unique transplant statistics nationwide, but it is important to

point out that since the opening of the surgical center the number of recoveries has been consistently on the rise:

2016 61 recoveries

2017 121 recoveries

2018 126 recoveries

2019 141 recoveries

2020 156 recoveries

“These numbers validate our investment in this important facility,” said Dils. “We are able to better serve our community, honor the wishes of more donors and donor families, and control our own costs at the same time."

The surgical center has Gift of Life working more efficiently in many ways, but the organization has also made a conscious effort to maintain its personal approach with the donor families. They have achieved this in part by incorporating personal touches into the recently built center, like a comfortable waiting room for donor families should the need arise, medallions for the donor families and a green rooftop on the building for reflection and meditation. They also commissioned artwork from each of their transplant centers that is prominently displayed in their surgeons’ lounge.

And of course, you cannot provide the personal touch without people. Gift of Life prides itself in sharing their mission and incorporating their values in their culture. This is particularly important for their Aftercare Services personnel who provide follow-up and bereavement resources to donor families and work with other OPO’s and transplant centers to deliver comprehensive care to recipients.

With an unwavering commitment to innovation and honoring life through donation, Gift of Life has facilitated more than 1,000 transplants for three consecutive years, is reflecting on 50 years of saving lives, and looking forward to helping even more people in the future.

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