Avoiding twice the loss: How the heroin epidemic is giving life to organ transplant recipients

BALTIMORE, Md. - Last year, there were a record number of organ transplants in the country, and in Maryland. Experts believe the increase is in part due to the growing heroin epidemic.

According to The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, in 2016, one in four organ donors in the area died from an overdose.

In 2015, that number was one in six, and nationally, it's one in 11. Recently, there was a conference where heads of organizations from places like The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland met to discuss trends across the country.

Charlie Alexander, the president and CEO of The LLF said they discussed the epidemic hitting some areas harder than others, and that current prevention efforts are not offering enough.

“Medical examiner's across the country are really discussing this at a pretty high level where if it's not an epidemic yet, they know that it's coming,” Alexander said.

While health and law enforcement agencies work to combat the epidemic, hospitals are performing a record number of organ transplants. There were more than 30,000 transplants across the country in 2016, and in Maryland, there were a record 188 organ donors from our area that saved the lives of 467 organ transplant recipients.

Amy Sherald, a Baltimore artist, received a heart transplant from a woman around her age.

“Kristen, she's from Frederick, Maryland. She was a dental hygienist, mother, and a wife, a sister, and now she's my donor,” Sherald said.

Doctors couldn't save Kristen from a heroin overdose, but they were able to help Amy.

“I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure when I was 30 years old. I was just coming out of a graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art,” she said.

Normal heart function is between 50 and 70 percent. Amy's heart was down to five percent before she received a transplant. She remembers right after surgery and wanting to immediately reach out to her donor's family.

“One, to say thank you. Two, I needed it to come full circle. It just, it's shocking to wake up out of anesthesia and when you wake up your heart is beating really forcibly, pound pound pound, so fast. And I would feel lost if I didn't,” said Sherald.

She first met Kristen’s family at a Living Legacy Foundation event.

“Her mom walked up to me, it was her first time approaching me and saying my name, and was like ‘I'm so happy you're the one that has my daughter's heart,’” said Sherald.

Despite Amy’s story and an increase in overdose deaths, the LLF is preaching prevention.

“It's so counterintuitive for a nonprofit health care organization with a specific message to say ‘we would like to have fewer donors next year and less people dying from overdoses,’ because in the end it's the net lives saved that matter,” Alexander said.

And right now, a record number of people in Maryland are dying from drug overdoses; 72 percent more from heroin alone in just the first nine months of 2016.

“It's a very scary time, I really feel like we're at the very beginning,” said Alexander.

At the conference last month, Alexander spoke with his counterparts in Ohio, Kentucky, and Boston, who have also seen big increases. He also noted that deaths in some states weren't always turning into donations.

“Here in Baltimore, if something bad happens to you you're literally minutes away from a hospital and that's not true in lots of different areas in the country where something like this were to happen, an overdose or any other type of accident, they might be 20, 30, 40 minutes away from a hospital,” said Alexander.

Better access to care can be life-saving but it also means a better chance, particularly with overdoses, that the organs can be salvaged.

“Literally, every minute counts. Anything in excess of 20-30 minutes is very difficult to turn around from an organ function perspective,” Alexander said.

That’s when the countdown begins for those on the transplant list. People who are waiting for donor like Kristen, whose decision to become a living legacy saved so many others.

“It's so worth it to know that not only did Kristen save my life, she saved seven other people,” said Sherald. “So, seven other people are alive because you lived. So you can die and your life will still have meaning. I don't need to say anymore than that.”

Advances in technology have allowed doctors to better ensure transplants from overdose patients are safe. There's still some risk but they're able to sooner test for most diseases. One organ donor can save eight lives and benefit more than 50 people through tissue donation.

National Donor Day on February 14 is a day to raise awareness for all types of organ donation and the difference it can make for those in need. The LLF is encouraging everyone to designate themselves as a donor through www.DonateLifeMaryland.org, at the MVA, or to discuss their wishes with their family.

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), every ten minutes someone is added to the national transplant waiting list. And on average, 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.

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