GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The record number of opioid-related deaths in Kent County last year, a consequence of the nation’s opioid epidemic, is nothing less than tragic. But the national crisis has an unexpectedly life-affirming result: More organs than ever are available for transplantation.
Just over a year ago, Laurie York Anderson discovered her 33-year-old son unconscious in his bedroom in Traverse City. Despite years in recovery, Ryan Anderson was overcome by his addiction to opioids, including Vicodin, and he died Feb. 1, 2017. His mother decided to honor his wishes to donate his organs.
His organs and tissue have helped dozens of people. His mother recently met the two men who received his heart and lungs.
“There’s a part of my son helping them live,” York Anderson told Target 8. “That allowed me to take my pain out of me, right now, and look forward for their happiness. That was a wonderful gift.”
Her son was part of a grim growth industry in Michigan. For the last two years, state and national statistics show an annual increase in opioid-related deaths of about 20 percent. The figure jumped more than 50 percent in 2015.
“Last year, about 16 percent of all of our donors came from drug overdose,” Dorrie Dils, the CEO of Gift of Life Michigan, said. “Since 2014, that percentage has doubled.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the national increase in opioid-related deaths is divided between the increase in the use of illicit drugs and those that come from prescription drug overdoses.
Michigan has 11 million opioid prescriptions for a population of less than 10 million people. Often, illicit use begins with a legitimate prescription, but proving how often that happens is difficult because there is no distinction between some opioids made legally and those made on the black market, especially when it comes to the painkiller fentanyl.
But as the number of organs available grows, so does the number of people needing organs, so wait times have not decreased.
“What we do see, though, are fewer people dying waiting for an organ transplant. Those numbers are coming down, so that is encouraging,” Dils said.
Organs from opioid overdoses are listed as “high risk” and recipients must agree to the risks of accepting those organs.
“The increase in the risk is less than a 0.1 percent increase from accepting a standard criteria donor kidney,” Jill Lampen, Saint Mary’s Mercy Health Transplant Program liaison, said. “Any kidney we accept does have to test negative for all of these blood-borne pathogens like HIV, hepatitis b, venereal disease, syphilis — things you might worry about with a donor who was engaging in high-risk behavior.”
Michael Englesbe, a transplant surgeon at University of Michigan, says about one third of all organs transplanted are qualified as high risk.
“If we didn’t use those organs, a lot of people would die,” Englesbe said.
The risk of turning down an organ is much higher than taking a high-risk organ because you might die before another is available.
Englesbe said the long-term outcome for high risk organs is no different than with standard risk.
Scott Campbell of Caledonia received a high-risk heart Dec. 15, 2016. He was in a coma after his surgery until Christmas Day, when he awoke.
“It really wasn’t a hard decision for me to accept that heart,” he said. “I feel 100 percent better. I guess I’ve never realized how good I can feel until I got my heart.”
While he said he struggled with some form of survivors’ guilt, he will always appreciate the gift he was given by another family in the depths of despair.
“I’m going to be able to walk my daughter down the aisle when she gets married, see my grandchildren, those kind of things that I’m sure would have never happened if it wasn’t for my donor,” Campbell said. “I really, really appreciate all they had to go through so that myself and the others who received organs from him could be all the person that they could be.”