Heroin Overdoses In Ohio Lead to Spike in Organ Donors

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Heroin Overdoses In Ohio Lead to Spike in Organ Donors

By John Lavitt 08/08/14

Reflective of a national trend, the heroin epidemic in Ohio is radically increasing the number of young organ donors.

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In 2013, three percent of organ donors died as a result of drug overdoses, but that statistic has dramatically increased in 2014. According to Life Connection of Ohio, a nonprofit organ procurement organization in western Ohio, 18% of the organ donors now die from drug overdoses.

Although the heroin epidemic ravaging Ohio is tragic, the strange irony is the sudden plethora of younger organ donors is also saving lives and giving people on the brink of death the chance to live.

“For a long time, people used to think that organ donors only come from traumatic injuries," said Matthew Bailey, education and safety administrator for Life Connection. "Heroin overdoses tend to cause cardiac arrests and damage to the brain through lack of oxygen, and that has changed how we place the organs…We’re able to, perhaps, place fewer hearts because they had no blood flow.”

A popular myth has been that people who overdosed on heroin were ineligible to be organ donors, but Bailey dispelled such a notion. “[They] can still be organ donors," he said. "It does make placing their organs with recipients a little bit more difficult from time to time."

"The Public Health Service classifies these donors as increased risk and that classification decreases the number of people willing to receive those organs," Bailey continued. "But we usually don’t have a difficult time placing organs with recipients.”

Still, the stigma of drug addiction remains a problem. The bodies of such organ donors need to be tested for needle-based diseases like hepatitis C and HIV. Even if such tests are passed, healthier transplant candidates often refuse to accept an organ from someone who overdosed on drugs.

Although Bailey understands the perspective of such people, he believes that organ donation is not about morals, but about saving lives. “Ultimately it’s a decision between the surgeon and the recipient," he said.

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