According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a study of 52 areas in 45 US states showed that overdoses from opioids increased 30 percent between July 2016 and September 2017. In the Midwest, it’s more like 70 percent. That’s a staggering increase, which is why you’ve heard so much about the opioid epidemic lately.
The “average” American may not know anyone struggling with an opioid addiction, and fewer still know anyone who has died from an overdose. To them, statistics like these are just scary-sounding numbers. But those of us in the social sciences, particularly clinicians, know many of the stories behind the data. We know people who have tried to recover and failed, recovered and relapsed, and everything in between. We understand too well the pain and helplessness of losing someone to drugs or alcohol.
The search for meaning is as much a part of the grieving process as it is part of life in general. Memorials and scholarships are just a few of the ways that we ascribe meaning to someone’s life and ensure a legacy, even if it’s to serve as a cautionary tale. But the increase of opioid deaths has had a positive effect on another, more enduring crisis: The shortage of organ donors.
Organ donation by the numbers
If you need an organ, the odds aren’t in your favor. As of this writing, some 115,000 people are on the waiting list for organs. About 20 people die each day waiting for an organ that never comes. Though people overwhelmingly support organ donation, only about half of us are actually registered. Of those who are, only about 3 in 1,000 will die in such a way that organ donation is even possible.
From 2000–2017, the number of organ donations coming from overdose deaths has seen a 13-fold increase, which is good news for people awaiting transplants. Overdose victims are often relatively young and their deaths don’t typically result in trauma to the organs, so they can be good candidates. However, users of illicit opioids like heroin are also at greater risk for diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, which can make organ donation risky.
Still, organ donations from overdose deaths have seen a 24-fold increase from 2000–2016. Survival rates for recipients are comparable to those receiving organs from medical or trauma deaths, especially since it’s now possible to cure hepatitis C.
Finding meaning in tragedy
Overdose deaths feel especially senseless. They’re usually accidental but not in the same way as, say, running a stop sign. They carry a certain stigma in society. The assumption is often that the victim made one poor choice after another or fell in with the wrong people, when in fact they’re just as likely to have become addicted as a result of an injury or irresponsible prescription practices. That stigma and guilt often remains with the family after they’ve lost a loved one to an overdose, making the grieving process that much more difficult.
But knowing that the loss of one life can help save up to eight others can ease the pain and anguish that comes with losing someone to an overdose. Heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and intestines are all potentially life-saving organs that can be harvested for transplant. But tissues like tendons and skin can also help those in need, as well as corneas, hands and fingers, and even faces. Of course, blood, bone marrow, and platelets can also be donated.
Losing someone close — for any reason — naturally leads to a search for meaning in their loss. It’s good to discuss organ donation with all your family members and know what their wishes are should the unthinkable occur.
Unfortunately, the most crucial hours for organ donation following a death are also the most confusing and fraught for loved ones. Our hope is that, by increasing awareness of the organ-donor shortage, the families of overdose victims might have a clear purpose and focus during the initial hours of shock and confusion: Know the victim’s wishes. Know their medical history. By taking swift action to save and potentially donate life-saving organs, you can quickly bring meaning their loss and give someone on the waitlist the news they so desperately want to hear. The solace you find in doing so may give you strength during the hard times to come.