Grieving families of some drug overdose victims are finding solace in the fact that surging deaths from the opioid epidemic have led to a record number of organ donations around the country.
The Gift of Life Donor Program — which organizes all donations in Eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware — has seen a dramatic increase in the past five years of donors who died of drug overdoses.
The number of Gift of Life donors who died of an overdose increased from 35 in 2012 to 154 last year, or a 440 percent increase. Total organs donated during that time jumped from 101 to 490.
“It’s tragic for the families, but they see organ donation as making some sense out of the tragedy,” said Howard Nathan, president and CEO of the Gift of Life program.
Contrary to what some people might think, organs from opioid overdose victims are fine to transplant — particularly because the deceased tend to be younger and otherwise healthy, Nathan said.
“The opioids and fentanyl don’t affect the organs themselves. They stop breathing and their heart stops. The oxygen deprivation makes them brain dead. The organs actually recover and the drugs themselves don’t affect the organs,” Nathan said.
Donors are usually kept alive on a ventilator until transplants can be organized around the country.
The United Network for Organ Sharing in January announced a record number of organs were recovered in the United States from 10,281 donors in 2017, a 3 percent increase over 2016. The increase was fueled in part by overdose deaths, the organization said. The total wasn’t broken down by the number of donors who overdosed.
Most commonly transplanted organs are kidneys, livers, hearts and lungs, officials say.
Dr. Michael Marvin, director of organ transplants for Geisinger Health System, said the surge in fatal overdoses is an unfortunate part of today’s society, but some families find a “silver lining” that their loved one’s organs can live on in someone else.
Marvin, who has twin 18 year olds, said it is impossible not to feel bad for the overdose victims, most of them younger, and their families.
“We think about it, but we try not to focus on it because we try to focus on the lives of the people we are trying to help,” Marvin said.
Marvin encouraged people to become organ donors because there are tens of thousands of people waiting on transplant lists.
“These people are dying because not enough people are saying yes,” Marvin said. “The need is so great.”
More information can be found at www.donors1.org.
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