Opioid Overdose Deaths Cause Organ Donations In U.S. To Rise : Shots - Health News So far this year, more than 1 in 4 donations in New England are from people who died after a drug overdose — a much higher rate than in the U.S. overall, though it's not clear why.

Organ Donations Spike In The Wake Of The Opioid Epidemic

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For many months we've been reporting on the opioid crisis. Today we have a story about an unexpected consequence of overdose deaths. Organ donations from drug users are up nearly 900 percent in New England since 2010. From WBUR in Boston, Martha Bebinger reports.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: For just over 24 hours on the final day of June 2015, Colin LePage road waves of hope and despair. He found his 30-year-old son Chris at home in Haverhill, Mass., after an apparent overdose. At the hospital, doctors found a heartbeat but no response from Chris' brain. At some point, a doctor or nurse mentioned to LePage that his son had agreed to be an organ donor.

COLIN LEPAGE: I could see genuine concern and sadness that this had happened, that there was a life - that he mattered to someone.

BEBINGER: Now LePage finds some comfort in knowing that Chris' liver is extending the life of a 62-year-old pastor. That experience is becoming all too common in New England, where more than 1 in 4 organs are now donated after a drug overdose.

ALEXANDRA GLAZIER: It's remarkable, and it's also tragic.

BEBINGER: Alexandra Glazier, CEO of the New England Organ Bank, says donations from drug users are up across the U.S., but no area matches the spike she's seeing. Glazier offers three reasons. Opioid overdose death rates are high in this region. Second, she says New Englanders tend to be pragmatic about end-of-life decisions. And the area has 12 transplant centers with long lists of patients and skilled doctors.

GLAZIER: Medical centers here may be more aggressive in their transplantation practices than in other parts of the country.

BEBINGER: There are risks that these organs may carry HIV or hepatitis B or C. But Dr. Jay Fishman with Mass General in Boston says tests to detect these viruses have improved in recent years. And if there is an accidental transmission, there are treatments. And, says Fishman, an organ from someone who overdosed may actually be quite healthy.

JAY FISHMAN: As awful as this outbreak is, these are younger people who are dying often with needles in their arms, and many of them were first-time drug users.

BEBINGER: But the decision to donate an organ can be agonizing. Debbie Deagle waited six days, a year ago January, before agreeing to turn off the respirator that kept her son Stephen alive after he was declared brain dead.

DEBBIE DEAGLE: Never in a million years do you ever visualize kissing your child whose heart's beating and having to watch them wheel that stretcher away.

BEBINGER: The transplant patient who received Stephen's heart did not make it. She's hoping those who got his kidneys did. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

CORNISH: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WBUR and Kaiser Health News.

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