Organ Donations Increase As Opioid Overdose Deaths Climb

By Kelly Burch 10/01/18

“Some refuse due to the stigma but when posed with lifesaving transplants in very sick people, that refusal rate for a quality organ is low.”

hand sharing a toy heart with surgeons in the background

The number of Americans waiting for organ donation is dropping for the first time in 25 years, in part because there are more organs available for donation from people who have died of a drug overdose. 

“We started noticing the increase in overdose deaths in 2012,” Alexandra Glazier, director of New England Donor Services, which coordinates organ donation, told Vox. “Although it has a silver lining, in terms of its impact on organ availability, or at least it has in our region, it’s still not something we hope continues.”

“Those people are better off here, having fought their battles with drugs and won, for their families and for their kids,” said Daniel Miller-Dempsey, a family services coordinator with New England Donor Services. “It’s heartbreaking to know that so many people are dying from this.”

However, organ donation can provide a small silver lining for family members left behind. When David Maleham lost his son Matt to opioid overdose, he was not surprised. “It was a call I had dreaded for years,” he told Vox.

Matt was in the hospital and his driver's license indicated that he was an organ donor. Eventually, Maleham and his wife received a letter from the man who received Matt’s organ and felt a connection to his story. Maleham said that knowing his son’s donation gave this man a second chance at life eased the sense of loss. 

“If it weren’t for that, what a waste. What a pointless death. What did that accomplish?” he said. “The answer would have been nothing.”

The medical community has also become more willing to accept donations from so-called high risk donors. Federal law now allows donations from HIV-positive individuals. However, many people who die from opioid overdoses don’t have a long history of drug use. 

Most people who are in dire need of a transplant do not mind having an organ from someone who died from drug overdose. 

“Some refuse due to the stigma,” said Jay Fishman, who co-directs the transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital, “but when posed with lifesaving transplants in very sick people, that refusal rate for a quality organ is low.” 

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