Study Links Overdose Deaths to Increase in Organ Donations

May 2, 2018

A new study finds that the epidemic of drug overdose deaths in the United States has led to an increase in organ donors. Despite previous stigma attached to using organs from overdose donors, the study indicates that outcomes from these transplants are highly successful. This news is hopeful for patients like Vicky Keene who desperately needs a lung transplant.


“I’m at 15 percent with my lungs, so that means I could live two to three years with my lungs. I need lungs to survive,” said Keene.

Keene worked for 13 years at a coalyard shoveling coal and performing other duties that involved close contact with dust. In those days she was a single mom. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, commonly known as COPD.

“I have no life. Because you can’t breathe, you can’t move around,” said Keene. “If my husband’s not here to put my oxygen in the car, then I can’t go anywhere. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cry, but this disease just takes your life completely away from you.”    

There are more than 115,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the United States. It’s difficult to know exactly how many West Virginians need a transplant, because the state only has one transplant center for one organ – kidneys. Everyone else, like Keene, has to go out of state and is listed there.   

Dr. Joseph Africa, head of the CAMC transplant program, stands in the halls of General Hospital in Charleston.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Probably close to a third of our deceased donor transplants from last year came from overdose donors,” said Dr. Joseph Africa, program director of the Charleston Area Medical Center transplant program. “And for this year alone I think it’s even higher – it may be two-thirds of our deceased donors.”

The circumstances that allow a person to become an organ donor are fairly narrow. In West Virginia, donors need to die in a hospital and be declared “brain dead” or irreversibly stop breathing to be considered. According to the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (or CORE), only about 2 percent of all people who die worldwide can be organ donors.

“When somebody passes away from an overdose, just like any death that would result in brain death, the patient comes into the hospital and over the course of a few days there are various tests that are done that confirm that their brain has died and will never, ever be healed,”  said Katelynn Metz, the community outreach coordinator for CORE.

At that point, the donors are also tested for infectious disease such as hepatitis and HIV. Even with these tests, recipients have the option to refuse the organ and wait for one that doesn’t come from an overdose donor.

“The possibility of transmitting infection is a big factor that discourages transplant centers from transplanting these organs in the past,” said Dr. Africa. “But it turns out, especially with this recent study that came out from the Annals of Medicine, transmission rate really is very low. And those organs tend to come from younger donors unfortunately, so the quality of organs is really good and would benefit a patient on the list.”

The benefit extends not only to patients on the list but to the donors’ families as well who often are able to find a sense of closure and redemption in their loved one’s final act of saving others’ lives.

“My daughter’s name is Nadya Zitek. She was born in March 1980,” began Hilda Halstead.

Halstead’s daughter died two years ago. She remembers her as a headstrong young woman who loved horses, did well in school, had two sons, and yet struggled on and off with addiction.

Hilda Halstead holds a picture of her daughter Nadya Zitek riding a horse as a child. Zitek died of an overdose in 2016. All eight of her major organs were able to be donated.
Credit West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Her problems with addiction started when she went to WVU to college,” Halstead said. “And this child went from having a 4.57 GPA to a having .5 GPA and just running around with the wrong crowd.”

Eventually Zitek went into recovery, went to nursing school, and seemed to get her life back on track. Then it fell apart again.

“I got a call and I recognized the phone number as being the phone number at the ER. One nursing staff that knows me said, ‘I hate to tell you but your daughter is here. She was brought in unresponsive.’”

Zitek never woke up. CORE approached the family about the possibility of Zitek becoming an organ donor.

“She was a perfect match for all eight major organs. And they said, ‘That’s about the second time that’s happened in a ten-year period here.’ ...It’s helped ease the pain somewhat, but you can tell it really hurts – you don’t get over it.”

Halstead said she feels a sense of connection with the people who got Zitek's organs. And patients like Vicky Keene, who are waiting for lifesaving transplants, say any donor, whether he or she died from an overdose or not, is a hero.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on 5/3/2018 to change Zytek to Zitek.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.