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Meet Our Team: Emily Larimer, Hospital Liaison

We sat down with Hospital Liaison, Emily Larimer to learn more about her experience as a soldier, Registered Nurse, donor mother and now a partner with the VA in her role at LifeSource. Her work has been a benefit to Veterans in western South Dakota and to donation and transplantation overall.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Michigan on Lake Huron in a family of 7. I attended Bethel University in St Paul, MN as my parents had both grown up on MN (Buffalo Lake and Worthington). I was a part of a social justice committee and graduated with a BA in Sociology. As part of a college student exchange, I had the chance to visit Beijing China the year prior to the clash at Tiananmen Square.

While in school, I met my husband Kayne. Shortly after graduating we started our family and we both decided to join the military. 

What experience did you gain from being in the US Army Reserve?

I strengthened as a person in the military, learning disciplines in soldiering. I experienced the benefit of the getting up early lifestyle. Following basic training, I set off to language school in Monterey, CA to learn Russian.  The language and mission experience were exceptional. 

Shortly after training, I was stationed as a system analyst in a military intelligence battalion in Eagan, MN where my husband and I served on weekends. 

After that, we moved to South Dakota, and no longer served as reservists.

What inspired you to become a Registered Nurse?

While homeschooling our (at the time) three young children on a farm in South Dakota, I worked nights at a local nursing home as a nurse assistant to help meet family budget.  Being with the elderly and with those suffering from dementia, I felt overwhelming compassion for the human soul of the aging. The meaning of caring for this vulnerable population filled my cup and I thought, why not pursue nursing?  When the time was right, I applied and was accepted at South Dakota State University and juggled family, school, and work. I graduated from this program at the ripe age of 40.

Tell us about your previous role in Veterans Affairs (VA).

In nursing school, I was granted an internship for the summer at the VA in Hot Springs, SD. Thus, my journey teaming with the VA began. My appreciation was immediate, I heard heroic stories and woeful tales while sitting at patient’s bedside. My basic training was not identical to theirs, but we had many similar experiences. I was given firsthand opinions of history and current trends all while having the privilege of placing IVs, offering medications and giving treatments. A year plus later, I applied to work for the VA. I was hired and became a full-fledged RN on the medical surgical unit at Fort Meade. Later, I transitioned to the Intensive Care Unit where I became familiar with critical care and emergent interventions. 

With the support of family and VA scholarships, I completed my Masters of Science in Nursing and was hired into the education department where I grew as a nurse through topics of simulation, implementing orientation, preceptorships, and American Heart Association (AHA) courses.

How did you become connected to LifeSource? 

In 2015, still avidly focused in my VA nursing role, my youngest son -18 years old at the time- Nehemiah, was in a terrible accident.  He was on a scooter and had been hit in an intersection. My husband and I rushed to the scene and accompanied the ambulance to Monument Health Rapid City Hospital. There, he was cared for diligently, but regardless of the critical interventions was diagnosed as brain dead the following day. After this diagnosis, we were thoughtfully updated that Nehemiah had checked the box on his driver’s license to be a donor. My husband also recalled a conversation with Nehemiah six months prior and his verbal confirmation to be a donor on his license. It was during these sensations of shock, grief and hope for a miracle, that we first met LifeSource and were walked gently through the organ and eye donation process.

Losing Nehemiah and going through the miracle of donation brought a profound thought into my heart: Could I meet any of the lives he saved through donation?  The answer turned out to be yes. 

We met his liver recipient the following year. That meeting brought intense hope and meaning to my world of grief and journey of healing. I decided that if there was ever a way to work for LifeSource in western South Dakota, I would pursue it.

Tell me about the work you are doing with the VA System to engage and promote organ, tissue and eye donation?

In my role, it is a privilege to partner with VA Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS). This system is a leader in comprehensive, quality care for our veterans in western South Dakota. Strong in resources and compassion, the Fort Meade and Hot Springs Hospitals receive their oversight from VA Midwest Health Care Network (VISN 23) and the Veteran Health Administration (VHA) as two of the 1,255 unique health care facilities serving over nine million Veterans in our country. This structure amazes me and I believe it has the potential to impact streamlining donation and transplantation for my fellow Veterans.

To me, donation, and the final act of sharing life underscores the VA’s core values: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence.

In October of 2019, I was invited to present on donation at the Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs (NOVA) 39th Annual Meeting in Miami, FL. NOVA’s mission to educate, communicate, and advocate for the VA Nurse professionally, personally and legislatively. This offered a pivotal platform to share the hope I have personally experienced from being a donor mom, a soldier, VA nurse and now a partner with the VA concerning donation. The joy of initiating these relationships from across the country is incredible, I am grateful to use my journey and experience to bring all these pieces together.

After this meeting, I was empowered to reach out through The Alliance to connect with other Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) colleagues growing the vision of donation within their VA partnerships. Through this, I met a fabulous colleague, Berta Grunbeck, from the New England Donor Services (NEDS) OPO. We collaborated to share her efforts on a donation process integration within Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 1 to NOVA for their consideration on creating more awareness.

In April of 2020 Berta and I were invited to be co-panelists for the NOVA webinar, Organ and Tissue Donation: Impact on Veterans. I brought my VA and donor experience with an introduction to donation and Berta brought an impactful outcome concerning VISN 1: a standardized NEDS tissue screening tool implemented by 11 VAs.  This OPO process outcome included an improvement in referrals and timely referral rates within one year. Specifically, the VISN went from a 20% timely referral rate to >90% which has been sustained since implementations in 2014. Also, referral rates went from 0 and 30% to 99-100%, also sustained. VISN 1 is now, per Berta, working smarter not harder to advance organ, tissue and eye donation. In reflection, it has been an exciting experience to share these stories through a webinar venue to VA nurse leaders.

What’s one thing you want everyone to know about donation?

Donation is a privilege and an honor.