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Raymond Oakamoto
Raymond Okamoto is a medical laboratory technologist in the HLA lab. (Photo: UHN)

A few weeks ago, Raymond Okamoto had a night he won't soon forget.

After a long day at work, Raymond, a medical laboratory technologist in UHN's Laboratory Medicine Program (LMP), and his wife were settling into bed when they heard a beep. It was his pager – showing an urgent message from Colleen Shelton, Nurse Manager for Multi-Organ Transplant Coordinators (MOTC).   

Thanks to a difficult decision from a family at a local hospital, lungs, heart, liver, kidney and pancreas were all being generously donated to Toronto General Hospital, meaning the HLA (Histocompatibility) lab, where Raymond is one of the medical laboratory technologists on the team, had to urgently test a number of potential recipients to each organ, to determine if they were suitably matched.

The HLA laboratory not only identifies the unique HLA genes in donors and recipients for matching, but also uncovers if there are specific antibodies that would attack an organ from a particular donor, preventing that donor organ from being transplanted.

As organs need to be transplanted quickly, time is key in getting the results of these tests to the transplant teams. 

"These HLA proteins allow our immune system to recognize ourselves as 'self' and conversely, to attack foreign cells expressing different HLA, such as a transplanted organ or stem cells," Dr. Kathryn Tinckam, Medical Director of the HLA Laboratory, explains.   

HLA Lab members
Team members of the HLA Laboratory who work to identify if organs are a good match for transplant patients. (Photo: UHN)

For every potential transplant, one or more laboratory technologists are behind the scenes ensuring donors and recipients are compatible and a transplant will be safe.

On this particular day, the responsibility fell on Raymond. He was in the lab 30 minutes after the page.

What followed was TeamUHN in action.

Samples made their way safely to the lab thanks to the overnight security guard. Constant communication between Colleen and Raymond, led to the best possible assessment of next steps.   

"Communication is vital in coordinating organ transplants," says Colleen, "An incredible amount of information must be relayed to several services and clinicians within a short time frame so that everything comes together for the best possible patient outcome."  

As a result of Raymond and Colleen's collaborative effort, four of the five donor organs were matched with recipients and transplants could proceed.  

Team processes thousands of pre-transplants each year

"When you're supporting one of the largest transplant programs in North America, this activity and complexity could be any given night." says Dr. Tinckam. 

"It's a true testament to our dedicated laboratory staff." 

Thousands of pre-transplant, waitlist patients and donor samples are processed by the HLA laboratory technologists in UHN's Laboratory Medicine Program annually, leading to more than 600 transplants at UHN each year.  

Raymond says each time he deals with a transplant he feels a closer connection to the patient.  

"It does impact you," he says. "It shows anything can happen during any time of the day.

"You have to treat it with a lot of respect."   ​

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