Opioid epidemic creates increase in organ donations

Opioid epidemic creates increase in organ donation
Published: Feb. 21, 2018 at 10:36 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2018 at 8:17 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - "He'd been sober a year and he was engaged to be married," says Marlene Shay.

Shay describes her son, 21-year-old Adam, as a musician and artist who struggled with a heroin addiction. When Adam chose to use again, he overdosed and was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late.

That same day, Karen Goodwin got a call she'd desperately needed.

"I knew it was my last Christmas and my last New Year's unless I got a transplant. I was that bad," says Goodwin.

Going through dialysis four times a day, Goodwin needed a kidney and pancreas, and she was starting to lose hope.

"And, it was like a light bulb went off. I'm like, they're ready for me?" says Goodwin.

Organs from opioid addicts are saving lives across the country. Over the past two years in Louisiana, there's been a 40 percent increase in the number of donors from drug overdoses.

"It's kind of the one good thing that has come out of what has become a very tragic situation," says Kirsten Heintz.

Heintz is with the Louisiana Organ Procurement Association. She says often times, recipients do get nervous when they hear the organs they're about to receive are from a heroin user.

"And the transplant centers always discuss these risks with the transplant recipient before they accept it, and they discuss the risks and benefits of the transplant," says Heintz.

Heintz says in most cases, transplant recipients are more at risk of dying if they don't accept the organ.

"Right now, the wait for a kidney is three to five years. If you have a higher score, between 20 and 30, you could die within three months before you get another opportunity to say yes or no to an organ," says Heintz.

In Ohio, Karen Goodwin was grateful, but also nervous when she learned that they person ahead of her in line for a transplant rejected Adam Shay's organs. Often times, the organs of heroin users are labeled as high risk, plus there's a potential for exposure to hepatitis.

Heintz, though, says technology has gotten much better at detecting risks.

"Nucleic acid testing, often called NAT testing, shortens the window where we can test to see if someone has recently gotten a disease such as HIV or hep C, and another thing is that treatments have gotten much better for those diseases. HIV is much more treatable and hep C is curable," says Heintz.

In an ironic twist of fate, Goodwin also has a history of abusing alcohol and drugs, including heroin.

"For all intents and purposes, I should have been where he was. There's no reason, but by the grace of God, I got through addiction," says Goodwin.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 40,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2016, and the numbers are expected to be much higher from 2017.

That crisis is now colliding with another major health crisis - the need for lifesaving organs.

In Louisiana, there are 4,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney.

"And then, in terms of transplantation, if you're waiting for a kidney, nine out of 100 are likely to die within a year if they don't take the organ," says Heintz.

While the opioid crisis is tragic and taking a toll on loved ones left behind, some believe organ donations are a way for families to offer hope and life to others.

"It's often the one good thing that's come from the tragedy. They say it's the silver lining. It's what helps them get through the grief. They can say at least there was some purpose to my loved one's death. That's the term I hear a lot, that there was some sort of purpose and then some of them go on to meet the recipients that their loved ones helped, and it really has helped several of our donor families through the process," says Heintz.

It means the world to our family. Heroin did not get the last word," says Marlene Shay.

Copyright WVUE 2018.All rights reserved.