Opioid epidemic may have 'silver lining,' organ donor group says

As leaders across the Mid-South struggle to fight the opioid epidemic, a national organ procurement group found what appears to be a "silver lining."

United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) said of the more than 10,000 deceased organ donors last year, 1,367 of them died from a drug overdose or intoxication, a 144 percent increase in five years.

Though their data doesn't show the specific types of drugs that caused those overdoses, they say it's in line with the soaring number of people who've died from opioid overdoses.

"The opioid epidemic and opioid crisis, I mean it's obviously a huge national tragedy, but when you look at it from the perspective of organ donations, there is a little bit of a silver lining," said Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer for UNOS.

Donors who died of drug overdoses accounted for 13 percent of all donors last year.

For ten years, Patrick Taylor's heart slowly gave out.

"I got diagnosed with a dilated cardiomyopathy, which means the left ventricle of my heart is larger than normal," said Taylor.

Doctors told the Memphis native unless he received a transplant, he wouldn't live to see his kids grow up.

"You're just kind of not there when you hear you need this and you're going to have to go through this," said Taylor. "It's a very somber time. "Luckily for Taylor, he received a new heart a month later."

While Taylor doesn't know his donor's background, other than that they were from eastern Tennessee, he believes organs from people who've died of drug overdoses, can save lives.

"If the doctors and everybody say the heart is viable and it can keep you alive, I don't see why not," said Taylor. "I just encourage everyone to be an organ donor because you can save a lot of people just with yourself."

More than 3,000 Tennesseans are waiting for an organ donation, according to data from UNOS.

Klassen said while organs from donors who've died of opioid overdoses are seen as carrying increased health risks, the risk is actually very low.

"All organs are screened exceedingly carefully and it is very, very low risk with respect to disease transmission," said Klassen. "They actually are in many respects very good donors, in the sense that they typically are younger people who have very good organ function."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 174 Americans die from an opioid-related overdose every day.

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