Spike in organ donations linked to opioid crisis

RICHMOND, VA (WRIC) — Organ donations in the U.S. have hit record numbers. The reason behind the increase, however, is not exactly a public health victory.

Tracy Grow reads a letter from LifeNet,  an organ transplant provider.

“The first kidney recipient is woman in her late 20s,” Grow reads. It’s a flicker of light in the midst of a dark time for the Chesterfield, Virginia mom.

“The second kidney recipient is a gentlemen in his mid-30s, he has one child,” Grow continued.

She lost her 24-year-old son, Taylor, to a heroin overdose last year.

“Taylor was seven months clean to the day when he overdosed,” she explained.

Grow said even as Taylor struggled with addiction, he was always so giving — even in death as a registered organ donor.

“I think the first think that came to my mind was how generous he was,” Grow said.

His heart, both kidneys and his liver — an unexpected lifeline for those desperately waiting for an organ transplant.

“In his death, in his passing, he saved four lives,” Grow said.

Organ donations have increased nearly 20 percent in the last five years, according to the Richmond-based United Network For Organ Sharing, also known as UNOS.

The surge, sadly, is driven partly by drug overdose deaths. It’s a result of the opioid crisis.

“A little bit over 1,200 became donors,” points out David Klausen Chief Medical Officer at UNOS

In 2016, 1,261 organ donations came from those who died of drug intoxication, up from 848 the year before.

“The large number, that’s a national tragedy for sure, but I think it’s a possible to salvage a little bit of good out of that situation for some families,” Klausen added.

Drug users, particularly intravenous drugs users, have long been considered high risk for diseases like HIV or hepatitis C. For recipients, doctors say don’t worry.

“The donors are screened extremely well,” Klausen explained.

Dr. Kausen and Dr. Marlon Levy, Chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery at VCU Medical Center, say with the rigorous screenings of today, the risk of transplanting an infected organ is small.

“We do biopsies of the liver and look at it under a microscope and assure ourselves that is safe to use,” Dr. Levy said.

Even so, Dr. Levy say it’s better to treat an infected organ than die waiting for one.

“There are about 120,000 people on the waiting list,” Dr. Klausen added.

Those on the wait list do have the right to decline an organ from an IV drug user.

“Patients can decline at any time for any reason,” Dr. Levy said. There’s no penalty, they don’t lose their place in line.”

Grow,  who finds comfort in the lives Taylor helped save, plans to write her own letter to the recipients of Taylor’s organs. She one day hopes to meet them.

“They say we were able to recover and transplant Taylor’s heart,” Grow said. “I would like to share with them who Taylor was.”

You can register to become an organ donor online or at the DMV. You can even change your status on your driver’s license online. Click here for another way to register.


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