Staff Spotlight: Cindy Zarate takes care of donors in the days, hours and minutes before they give their final gifts

Cindy Zarate in blue scrubs in the ICU

Donation Coordinator Cindy Zarate squeezes a terry cloth towel soaked with warm, soapy water and slowly wipes it across the arms of a man whose life ended the day before.

It’s her job to be there for him at Gift of Life Michigan’s Donor Care Center in Ann Arbor. The hospital-like center is home to a three-bed unit with operating rooms and coordinators like Cindy committed to giving donors the dignity and honor they deserve.

The Donor Care Center is where as many as 165 organ donors a year give their final gifts. In the days and hours before transplant teams arrive, most are cared for by Cindy, who has spent 35 years as an RN. She spent the first part of her career at McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey, Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, and Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor.

She’s been at Gift of Life for the past 21 years.

“I love taking care of people,” Cindy said. “When I was 7, my aunt walked into my grandma’s house wearing a white nurse’s hat, white shoes and uniform. She looked just like an angel and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”

More than 1,000 donors have been cared for by Cindy and her colleagues since the center opened in 2016.

“We give them a bath, mouth care, and make sure they’re covered up. It’s what we do in their final days and hours. His life has ended but he’s still a person,” Cindy said gesturing to a 60-year-old man in a bed a few feet away. He registered to help others before he became critically ill.

“There’s dignity and respect for the lives they’ve lived and the gifts they’re about to give,” Cindy said.

Personal items sometimes are transferred with them and Cindy watches over those, too. A cowboy hat, a favorite blanket, photos and team logo items have all occupied space at the Donor Care Center.

If a family member calls wishing to speak to their loved one, Cindy will put the phone to the donor’s ear. She also talks to donors. “If they’re young, I will repeat what their parents have told me. I say things like, ‘You’re such a good kid. Your mom and dad love you.’”

Kim BaltierraKim Baltierra, Director of Organ Services at Gift of Life, said Cindy cares for donors like family. “She washes and combs their hair if they need it. She treats them as if the family is standing right next to them.”

“Cindy is incredible. And she’s what Gift of Life is all about, which is making sure the needs of donors and their families are met at the highest level,” Kim said. “Because they are true heroes for others.”

The needs of families are also met there. If they want special music, a letter from family or friends, poem or prayer read in the operating room, Cindy and other coordinators make sure it’s played or read.

“This man’s family requested rock and roll,’’ she says. “I’ve heard a lot of ‘Amazing Grace’ through the years, rap music and REO Speedwagon’s ‘Time for Me to Fly’ is also a popular one.

Cindy said being around death every day can be difficult. “But I get to take care of someone who is giving organs and life to others. So, I know I’m also helping others live.”

The man she washed and talked to that day became a donor the following evening. His gifts: Both kidneys for two patients waiting for a transplant.

Donor Care Center facts

Gift of Life Michigan has a dedicated space at the Ann Arbor headquarters where most tissue donors and as many as 165 organ donors each year are transferred to give their final gifts.

A few facts:

  • More than 1,000 organ donors have been cared for there since the facility opened in 2016.
  • It includes a three-bed ICU where donation coordinators tend to donors’ personal and organ health needs before they donate.
  • The care center has operating rooms for both organ and tissue donation.
  • Donor families wanting to travel to Ann Arbor to be near their loved ones have a dedicated space and receive a special care kit.
  • Gift of Life teams and transplant surgeons pause in the OR before each donation to speak the donor’s name, thank them for their gifts, and read poems, lyrics or letters sent along by their families.
  • Special music for donors is played in the OR, as requested by families.

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