Fueled By Opioid Deaths, Organ Transplant Rates Reach Record High

By Kelly Burch 01/18/17

Nationally, 12% of organ donations are from people who died from a drug overdose.

Doctor holding a tiny red plastic heart.

An unexpected side effect of the opioid epidemic is that organ transplants have reached a record high in the United States for the fourth year in a row. 

In 2015, organ transplants increased by 8.5%, totaling 33,606 transplants across the country last year. The number of transplants has risen 19.8% since 2012, driven in large part by premature deaths from drug overdoses, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. “That magnitude of change in one year is really quite substantial,” said Dr. David Klassen, UNOS’s chief medical officer. “The opioid epidemic accounts for nearly 50% of the increase over last year.”

Doctors may have previously hesitated to use donated organs from someone who died of a drug overdose, but because opioids leave the system quickly it is generally considered safe. “While donation and transplant professionals always use their best medical judgment in evaluating donors and organ offers, over the last several years we’ve had success using organs from donors with certain criteria we may not have accepted in the past,” said Klassen.

Nationally, 12% of organ donations are from people who died of a drug overdose, according to NPR. In some areas of the country where the opioid epidemic is more concentrated, the rate is much higher; in New England, for example, it is 27%. "It's remarkable and it's also tragic," Alexandra Glazier, president and CEO of the New England Organ Bank, told NPR. "We see this tragedy of the opioid epidemic as having an unexpected life-saving legacy.”

However, many drug users have not considered the possibility of organ donation. "I've never heard anyone talk about organ donation as a possibility. I'm not sure it's on their radar screen," said Dr. Jessie Gaeta, chief medical officer at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

Organ donation can be complicated for family members as well. Some, like Colin LePage, find comfort in the idea that their loved one’s donation helped someone else. LePage’s son Chris became an organ donor after an overdose in 2015. "[It's] comforting that someone else has been able to have a little piece of my son and some of their pain is not what it used to be," said LePage.

Other families struggle with the decision. Debbie Deagle took her son off life support after six days of unresponsiveness. Although she followed through on his wishes for organ donation, she is still haunted by the choice. "Never in a million years do you ever visualize kissing your child whose heart's beating and having to watch them wheel that stretcher away and know they're going to cut him open and take out a beating heart,” she told NPR

However, in an epidemic so filled with tragedy, many choose to see the positive where they can. “Clearly, the opioid epidemic is a huge tragedy for the country as a whole, but you can salvage a little bit of good out of a terrible situation sometimes,” said Klassen.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.