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Organ donations from overdose victims a "silver lining" of opioid crisis

Opioid epidemic spurs organ donations
Opioid epidemic spurs increase in organ donations 02:16

As the nation battles an opioid epidemic that continues to claim lives in record numbers, there are signs that those tragic deaths are providing second chances for a growing number of complete strangers.

Hatem Tobla knows this first hand. Three years ago, the healthy father celebrated his wedding anniversary and two days later was in a medically induced coma. A severe E. coli infection left his organs failing. It took weeks for doctors to stabilize him, but he desperately needed a liver transplant.

"What they came to us with, is your situation is so difficult right now that we to want you to consider a high-risk donor," Tobla told CBS News' Kenneth Craig.

That donor turned out to be a 21-year-old man who died of a heroin overdose in the throes of the nation's opioid epidemic.

New research from Johns Hopkins University finds organ donations from overdose victims have increased 24-fold since 2000.

In 2016, there were 3,533 transplants using overdose-related donated organs, up from just 149 such transplants in 2000, according to the study, which was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Deaths from overdoses are on the rise, yet most occur outside hospitals, making organ donation more difficult. Still, those deaths now account for about 13 percent of the nation's deceased organ donors, up from 1 percent in 2000, the researchers calculated.
"This is not an ideal or sustainable solution to the organ shortage," lead researcher Dr. Christine Durand wrote in the medical journal.

But with nearly 115,000 people on the national waiting list for a transplant, the Johns Hopkins team concluded that use of organs from overdoses "should be optimized" because many transplant candidates would otherwise die waiting for another donor.

New England Donor Services president Alex Glazier calls it an unexpected silver lining.

"It's a lifesaving legacy out of a pretty horrific public health scenario," she said.

For the study, the researchers used a U.S. registry to compare the outcomes of nearly 338,000 patients who received a transplant between 2000 and 2016 from a donor who died of either disease, trauma or an overdose.
In general, transplant recipients' survival was similar with an organ from an overdose victim. In fact, compared to donors who died of disease, they sometimes fared a little better because overdose donors tend to be younger and less likely to have had high blood pressure, diabetes or other ailments that can affect an organ's function, the researchers reported.

The liver Tobla received was infected with hepatitis C, which was cured in just three weeks thanks to medical advances. Those treatments have paved the way for using more organs that wouldn't have been considered in the past.

"That's really been a total game changer in terms of opening up the potential for donation in these cases," Glazier said.

Tobla said he thinks about his donor every day and hopes to one day meet the family of the young man who saved his life.

"My purpose is to take this young man's legacy forward," he said, "to be the best husband and father that I can possibly be."

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