As opioids take more lives, surgeons seeing more transplants from donors who’ve overdosed

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The opioid epidemic is taking lives all across the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 70 percent of drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved opioids, six times higher than it was in 1999.

As it claims lives, it's also unexpectedly having another impact. Metro surgeons say they've transplanted organs from donors who died from overdoses.

A study from the New England Journal of Medicine says the number of organ donations from donors who died of overdoses increased from 1 percent in 2000, to 14 percent in 2016.

"Definitely the opioid epidemic has contributed to more organs being available," said Travis Abicht, surgical director for Advanced Heart Failure at KU Health System said. "We have had donors that have been part of that crisis."

There are more than 100,000 people waiting for organ donations in America. About 2,500 of those people are in Kansas and Missouri.

Abicht said the CDC puts drug use in the high-risk category for organ donations. But that doesn't mean those organs can't be transplanted.

"Some of the risk factors that led to those organs not being used in the past, mainly Hepatitis C, is now a treatable disease," Abicht said. "Now these otherwise healthy organs can be utilized to help someone else out."

Abicht hasn't seen any of those complications in the transplants he's done.

"We would never offer you any organ that we didn't think that the benefit far exceeded any risk," Abicht said.

The Midwest Transplant Networks talks to families about donating their loved one's organs. They haven't seen an increase in donors who died from opioid overdoses in the area they cover but said donations of any nature can help families heal.

"It gives purpose to the life that was lived and gives opportunity for that life to continue living in someone else," said Michala Stoker with Midwest Transplant Network.

If you're interested in learning more about organ donations, you can visit the Midwest Transplant Network's website.

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