Overdose victims now account for one-third of organ donations

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to the rampant opioid crisis in our area.

The latest numbers from Lifebanc indicate that 33 percent of organ donors in Northeast Ohio are now overdose victims.

That's up from just 7 percent only five years ago. But what are the risks associated with these organs? And what are the rights of recipients when it comes to this influx of donations?

-- Click here for information on becoming an organ donor in Ohio --

The story of Adam Shay is becoming a much too familiar one. The 21-year-old was a musician, an artist, an athlete and an addict.

"He had been sober for a year, was engaged, when he fatefully made the choice to use again," said his mother, Marlene Shay.

Three years in and out of rehab wasn't enough to kick the heroin habit he'd developed. Friends and first responders kept him alive when he overdosed and got him to a hospital, but it was too late for Adam. However, his family knew he'd already made the choice to give the gift of life when his time came, registering as an organ donor.

"He said no, no, this is really cool. I could save some lives someday and become part of the universe and go on and forever be here," recalls Shay.

On that same day in January 2014 when the Shays said tearful goodbyes to Adam, Karen Goodwin got the call she'd been waiting for.

"I knew it was my last Christmas, my last New Years unless I got a transplant. I was that bad," said Goodwin.

She was weak and tired, and losing hope that she'd get the kidney and pancreas she desperately needed.

"I was doing peritoneal dialysis four times a day," Goodwin says.

She was nervous, but grateful to hear that the person ahead of her in line had rejected Adam's organs because they were labeled "high risk" due to his known heroin use.

"It was like a light bulb went off…they're meant for me," she says.

Goodwin was not only a lifetime diabetes sufferer, but also a long time drug and alcohol abuser, including heroin.

"For all practical intents and purposes, I should have been where he was. There is no reason but the grace of God that I got through addiction," she says.

Adam's story is one becoming more common as the war against heroin wages on.  According to the United Network of Organ Sharing, or UNOS the number of donors nationwide who died of drug overdoses doubled in a matter of three years, from 625 in 2014, to 1263 in 2016, and they're expecting to set a new record this year.

Heather Mekesa, with Lifebanc, says organs from overdose donors are processed just like others in the system. They screened for communicable diseases, and evaluated to see how well they function to determine eligibility for transplants. Organs from overdoses that are eligible are still labeled high, or increased risk to recipients.

"But these individuals that are waiting for transplant, they don't have any other option and that is something that on the transplant side they are educated on and they have the option whether or not they want to accept an organ that has been labeled increased risk," she says.

By the time the organs are evaluated, the drugs are no longer in the donor's system, but the organs could still be compromised because of unknowns like multiple blood transfusions.

Potential recipients discuss options with their transplant surgeon. They factor in the age of the donor, how they died, size of the organ and blood type of the donor, as well as the condition of the patient. If they decline, there are risks associated with that too.

"We don't know, they don't know, when their next match is going to be available. Could be the next day. Could be weeks, it could be months," Mekesa says.

After Karen successfully received Adam's kidney and pancreas, she was hesitant to contact his family, due to medical complications and the stigma of her addiction.

"I was afraid if they knew that their son's organs went into a fellow recovering addict, the first thing that might pop into their mind is oh my gosh, we're going to go through this again," she said.

But she gave Adam a year of sobriety, through her, then contacted his family to express her gratitude.

"I sent the one year coin and I said, 'In some ways, God is doing for Adam what he couldn't do for himself," Goodwin remembers.

"It means the world to our family that heroin did not get the last word. Death did not get the last word," says Marlene Shay.

She knows not every family affected by heroin addiction gets this chance.

"Being associated with heroin is a terrible stigma for some people, but we refused to be in shame or embarrassed and we felt it was our calling to really educate people. If it could happen to Adam it could happen to anybody. Nobody is immune," she said.

Marlene says his story is significant because of how many people are suffering. But his last act wasn't overdosing, it was choosing to give life.  She says for that reason his label isn't addict, it's hero.

Now, Karen says Adam lives on as a part of her.

"I keep trying to do all of the things that I imagine Adam would have liked to do," she says.

She's traveled and gone ziplining....living life to the fullest. For her, the risk was worth it.  
"The ripple effect of this beautiful gift has been tenfold," says Adam's mother.

Not everyone who overdoses is eligible to donate their organs. They must be in a medical facility, on a ventilator or respirator, and medically supported when the choice is made.

Even if those requirements are met, not every organ is viable, and not every organ has a match. Risk factors associated with IV drug use does play a role, which rules addicts out from being eye and tissue donors.

There are currently 100,000 people waiting for a kidney. The liver, heart and lungs are also in high demand.

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