Surge in fatal drug overdoses helping people waiting for organ transplants

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September may have been the deadliest month ever for drug overdoses from heroin and other opioids, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner. The office has already verified 52 deaths last month and that number may climb higher as more tests results come in.

But the surge in fatal overdoses is helping people who are waiting for organ transplants.

Marlene Shay’s son Adam was 21 years old when he died from a heroin overdose in January of 2014. The Mentor high school graduate had been sober for a year, was engaged, and looking forward to his future when he chose to use again, his mother said.

This time it was fatal.

Shay found out later that her son had chosen to become an organ donor while getting his driver’s license on his 21st birthday.

“When he went and got his driver’s license, he came out and shared with his fiancé, ‘you know I registered to be an organ donor,” his mother said.

“And he said, ‘oh no, no, no, this is a good thing and I can save lives  someday and be part of the universe and just go on and on. Well six months later that’s exactly what he did,” she added.

The numbers of organs being donated from overdose victims has been increasing rapidly over the last five years, said Heather Mekesa, chief hospital and clinical services officer for Lifebanc, the northeast Ohio organ donation agency.

In 2012, six percent of organ donations were from drug overdoses. That number climbed to 16 percent last year and Mekesa said it’s now up to 22 percent for the first half of 2016.

There is a big misconception that because someone is using drug those drugs will in the organ that’s transplanted, she said.

“That’s not the case. Heroin does not stay in the body system for an extended period of time, so by the time that patient is ready to go to surgery there is no longer traces of drugs in that patient’s system,” Mekesa said.

There are nearly 2,000 people waiting for organs locally and this increase in donations is helping get more people off that list, she said.




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