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Life Support: Bethney Seifert

A Nevada Daughter coordinates the complex process of organ transplant transportation

When an organ donor dies, the clock starts ticking. Sophisticated technology can match organs to recipients in an instant, but there’s nothing easy about what comes next. Mobilizing a recovery team, organizing safe, reliable transportation—all at a moment’s notice—can be just as complex as the life-saving transplant surgery itself.

“It’s like playing chess in your head, except it’s extremely fast-paced,” said Bethney Seifert, who serves as flight coordinator and safety manager for Reno, Nevada-based Transplant Transportation Services, which arranges transportation for organ recovery teams from across the Western United States, many of them located in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I’m always thinking three steps ahead to help make sure we anticipate anything that could happen. I don’t want to say, ‘I never saw that coming.’”

Delays can be disastrous in this line of work, especially when you consider the time-sensitive nature of organ transplants. Once the blood supply is cut off, recovery teams, usually led by the transplant surgeon, have four hours to transplant a heart and six hours to transplant lungs. Livers and kidneys allow a little more breathing room—they have to be transplanted in 12 hours and 24 hours respectively.

“Every decision I make is based on the specific organ they’re recovering,” said Mrs. Seifert, member of Sierra Nevada Chapter in Reno, Nev. “Unless it’s local, hearts have to travel by jet.”

But airplanes can’t take off immediately. “It takes two hours to prepare a small aircraft; we need three for a jet,” she said. “There are so many variables to look at for any given call.”

Locating a plane isn’t usually her biggest concern, though—it’s the weather.

“Winter fog in the Bay Area is our enemy,” she said. “I am constantly watching the weather. Bad weather can completely derail our plans.”

The 2017 Las Vegas shooting tested Mrs. Seifert’s mettle. With the international airport shut down, a recovery team was unable to fly out. Luckily, she located another plane that was in range, contacted the operator of that flight, convinced them to land at a nearby airport and fly the surgeon and the organ to Los Angeles, where the transplant was to take place.

“On the one-year anniversary of that night in Las Vegas, we all talked about how thankful we were to know each other and be able to work together,” she said. “Every job is special because we’re providing such a vital service, but that night has had the most profound effect on me.”

Twenty-four hour shifts make for long days, which is why Mrs. Seifert only works as a flight coordinator three times a week. Ten days a month she’s also a family nurse practitioner at an in-patient psychiatric facility for teenagers. Mrs. Seifert—who has two teenage sons with her husband Bill—mastered the art of multitasking during her 20-year service in the Nevada National Guard.

In the National Guard, she served 10 years as a photographic interpreter, the same job her grandfather had in the Navy during World War II. Then she moved into air transportation, loading equipment, cargo and other supplies in and out of military aircraft. Two-week deployments took her across the world to Australia, South Korea, Panama and Germany. 

In 2004, she deployed for six months to Uzbekistan. An on-the-job injury during the deployment forced her retirement in 2006.

Staying involved in the DAR—she’s the Nevada State Organizing Secretary—helps fill a void that came after leaving the military.

“I love serving our veterans and our communities,” she said. “It gives me such a sense of team and camaraderie with friends, like I had in the military.”

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