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Organ transplants rise with number of opioid overdose deaths

Each day, nearly 200 people die from drug overdoses. As the number of lives claimed by drug abuse continues to climb, another number is going up as well: the number of organ transplantations as a result of overdose deaths.

“Families of overdose victims find great solace in an otherwise terrible tragedy, when they're looking for something positive, allowing their loved one to give the gift of life through organ donation,” said Susan Stuart, the president and CEO of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education in Pittsburgh.

CORE is one of nearly sixty organizations across the United States that works to find organs to save people's lives. In some cases, saving lives means an “enhanced risk” organ donation.

That means taking an organ from someone who died of a drug overdose or other risky behavior and using it to try to save a sick person's life. In Pennsylvania, the number of enhanced risk organ donations has skyrocketed. From 2011-18, more than 1,000 organs have been donated.


“Helping individuals with overdose organs has a very positive outcome for these recipients, and there is not that much difference,” said Stuart.

For four-year-old Rosie Vargas, who needs a new liver, an enhanced risk donation is not a likely solution. But while Rosie may not be able to get one of the enhanced risk organs, it's still an option for thousands of other people in need.

“When you're facing, you know, not making it versus taking a high-risk (organ), I think that you have to weigh the risk versus the benefit. If it came to that for Rosie, we would absolutely consider it,” said Sarah Vargas, Rosie's mother.

While Rosie waits for the gift of life, others like 43-year-old Michelle Haggerty are living a new life. Haggerty has someone else's heart beating inside her chest, after the enhanced risk organ saved her life.

"A new life. One that I've never had. I've never been able to do anything like cardio. Now I'm doing cardio three times a week for 50 minutes," said Haggerty.

Haggerty said she's living proof that the stigma surrounding enhanced risk organ donation is unfounded. She was the first to receive a transplant at UPMC from a donor who tested positive for Hepatitis C antibodies.

With any organ donation, a battery of tests is done to ensure the organ is a healthy one. Haggerty said she knows without someone else's heart in her body, she simply wouldn't be alive.

“Every day I think of my donor, and I think, 'Oh my gosh. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be doing all these things. My niece and nephew wouldn't be getting to know me better,” said Haggerty.

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