Utah Man Who Was Denied Lung Transplant Over Pot Use Has Died

By Keri Blakinger 04/27/17

"He will live in our hearts forever. Riley is now free to climb every mountain, ski the back country, go fishing, and run every river."

Riley Hancey
Riley Hancey Photo via YouTube

A Utah man initially denied a lung transplant due to marijuana use died in a Pennsylvania hospital last week, his family reported. After he was rejected for the potentially life-saving organ donation in his home state, 20-year-old Riley Hancey was flown to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for a double-lung transplant. He died Saturday from complications of the surgery four days after his 20th birthday. 

“This death is unbelievable,” his father Mark Hancey told the Salt Lake Tribune.

The trouble started in November, when the young outdoor enthusiast came down with the flu. A week later he was diagnosed with pneumonia, and was rushed to the hospital after he had trouble breathing. As his lungs began to fail, the Park City man went on life support and eventually doctors at University of Utah Hospital recommended a double-lung transplant. 

But there was a problem: Riley had smoked a joint with friends the day before he fell ill, and a positive drug test rendered him ineligible for a transplant at the Utah hospital.

“I said, ‘What if we don’t get a transplant? What if you cannot find another facility that will take him? What happens then?’” his father told BuzzFeed. The doctor, Hancey says, told his son: “Get your affairs in order.”

“She was willing to let him die over testing positive for marijuana,” the shocked father recalled. 

Although the Utah hospital has not publicly commented on Riley’s case, a spokeswoman said the university does not do transplants for patients with “active alcohol, tobacco or illicit drug use or dependencies until these issues are addressed.”

But despite the Utah team’s unwillingness to help Riley, the Hanceys found doctors in Pennsylvania who agreed to take his case. Finally, at the end of March—four months after he first fell ill—Riley got his transplant. 

His family knew it would be a difficult road to recovery. His parents likened the recovery process to mountain-climbing, one of Riley’s favorite pastimes. After summiting the peak and completing the transplant, now Riley would have to finish the equally perilous descent. But he didn’t make it. 

Last Saturday, April 22, Riley died from complications stemming from a fungal infection.

“It has been a long battle to save Riley’s life. We know that in our hearts we gave him every opportunity to survive,” his family wrote in a statement on their YouCaring page after his death. “He will live in our hearts forever. Riley is now free to climb every mountain, ski the back country, go fishing, and run every river. He will continue to do so with his family in spirit.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.