The number of lives lost to the opioid crisis continues to grow, and they are contributing to a record number of organ donations, says a leading member of the B.C. Transplant agency.
Dr. David Landsberg, provincial medical director of transplant services, said there were 121 deceased organ donors across B.C. and that those donations helped save a record-breaking 479 lives in 2017. In the Interior Health Region there were 32 deceased organ donors, compared to 17 the year before.
While Landsberg said the increase in donors has largely to do with a concerted effort on the part of health care teams in B.C. hospitals to identify potential donors and support families in choosing organ donation, there has also been an uptick in donors due to overdose deaths which also surged in number throughout 2017.
Kelowna has the second highest number of overdose deaths in Canada, and the Okanagan as a whole saw overdose deaths rise from 13 in 2007 to 126 in 2017.
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“We know that fentanyl is the biggest culprit of overdose deaths,” said Landsberg. “And that in 19 per cent (of organ donations) there was fentanyl detected.”
It doesn’t necessarily mean that those donations where the drug was detected were donated as a result of an overdose death, he said —only that traces of fentanyl were found.
Landsberg said that many who have died of an OD death aren’t in the condition for organ donation as it may create other medical problems.
For others who have died of an accidental overdose, there’s little contamination of their organs, though there is rigorous testing to ensure there’s no transmission of disease. Drugs also tend to clear the system by the time the organs are transplant-ready. Most people who die of a drug overdose end up brain dead with a fully functional circulation system, in much the same way as a car crash or drowning victim leaves behind many healthy organs.
As OD death numbers have risen so too has the sophistication of the organ donation program and supports available to patients in B.C. , and in Kelowna in particular.
There has been an increased focus on the patient and the patient’s family in the intensive care unit, said Landsberg.
They’ve also instituted transplant co-ordinators, focused on staff education and worked to liaise with families in difficult times.
In Kelowna they were also able to expand the ability to do organ donation not just after brain death but also after cardiac death.
All of this is increasingly important to a number of British Columbians.
More than 630 B.C. residents awaited transplants last year. And while some received a transplant, 29 died while waiting for a life-saving organ.
The gift of life is something that Alison Snowden knows very well after being one of the 52 British Columbians who received new lungs in 2017.
“One day I was a healthy person and the next, doctors told my family that my lungs were destroyed,” says Alison. A rare disease meant that unless Alison received a new pair of lungs soon, she wouldn’t survive. “I’m so thankful to my donor for this gift of life. You never think something like this is going to happen to you until it does. A transplant saved my life.”
British Columbians are encouraged to register their own decision about organ donation, and share their wishes with their family. For more information, visit transplant.bc.ca.