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Massive increase in organ donations from opioid overdoses is saving lives

Hatem Tolba received a liver from a 21-year-old who died from a heroin overdose. The transplant was successful, and Tolba is doing well. (Image source: KYW-TV video screenshot)

Opioid drug overdoses have nearly tripled over the last 15 years, but there may be a bright side to the distressing data from the opioid crisis.

Organ donations from opioid overdose victims have increased 24-fold over the same period, which means more patients are getting a second chance at life, according to a new report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Overdose donors are more likely to have infections such as Hepatitis C, which treatment can quickly and easily cure.  In the past, such organs would be considered high-risk and often discarded, but medical advancements have allowed patients to receive the organs with positive outcomes.

“That’s really been a total game-changer, in terms of opening up the potential for donation in these cases,” Alexandra Glazier, president and CEO at New England Donor Services, told KYW-TV.

Researchers found that organs from overdose deaths are no less inferior than those from people who died from trauma or other medical conditions. In fact, overdose victims are often younger and less likely to have serious medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.

Three years ago, Hatem Tolba ended up on the transplant list after a severe case of E. coli caused his liver to fail.

“I do remember, to some degree, that this could be the end of my life,” Tolba told the news outlet.

Tolba's condition put him in desperate need of a transplant.

“What they came to us with is your situation is so difficult right now that we want you to consider a high-risk donor,” Tolba explained.

So he took the chance and accepted a liver infected with Hepatitis C from a 21-year-old man who died from a heroin overdose.

The transplant was successful, and Tolba is doing well. He hopes someday to meet the family of the person who saved his life.

“My purpose is to take this young man’s legacy forward to be the best husband and father that I can possibly be,” Tolba said.

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