‘Silver lining’ to Ohio’s opioid crisis: Organs can be donated, used for transplants

September 16, 2018

‘Silver lining’ to Ohio’s opioid crisis: Organs can be donated, used for transplants

CLEVELAND, Ohio – For someone else to live, someone has to die. 

It’s the cruel reality of organ transplantation, a process that has saved the lives of 312 people in Northeast Ohio so far this year.

Johanna Henz, a 44-year-old Beachwood resident, is one of those people now breathing a second life because of a 24-year-old woman’s donation of her lungs.  

“I’m sitting in ICU thinking, ‘Please, please, please let me get some lungs,’ Henz said of her illness. “But someone has to die. It’s emotionally loaded.” 

Henz received her new lungs in June, after fighting for her life for six weeks. Once her team of doctors decided she was a candidate for a lung transplant, she had new lungs within the week. 

Such a quick match hasn’t always been possible. Because of the opioid epidemic that’s gripped Ohio, the number of organ donors has been rising, providing a second chance at life for recipients in need.

In Northeast Ohio, 26 percent of organ donors, or 40 people, died from an overdose last year, a number that’s been steadily climbing. According to Lifebanc, in 2012, only 7 percent, or eight donors, were overdose victims. 

“It’s the only positive part of a horrible, horrible trend we’ve seen with this whole opioid epidemic ... out of something so horrible, a silver lining,” said Dr. Marie Budev, an osteopathic doctor and medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s lung transplant program.

Leaving a legacy of life 

Jordan Daus of Bainbridge died from a heroin overdose Nov. 13, 2014. She was 18.  

A high school swimmer, a four-year member of choir at Kenston High School, a high-spirited girl who considered herself a free spirit, Jordan started using marijuana recreationally. In high school, she took prescription drugs like Xanax that she and her friends took from their parents. She struggled with anxiety and depression, with fitting in, and used drugs to self-medicate, her mother Lynne Daus said. 

In her senior year, some classmates were caught smoking marijuana. Jordan was with them. She was suspended and willingly entered New Directions, a local substance-abuse treatment center for young adults. She wanted to enter residential care but insurance denied it, so she attended support group meetings on her own and became sober. Jordan graduated high school. 

That fall, she relapsed, introduced to snorting heroin by a boyfriend. On the night of Nov. 10, her first day at Glenbeigh Outpatient Center, a drug addiction treatment facility she voluntarily entered, Jordan fatally overdosed. 

“We’ll never quite know what happened that night, why she chose to do that that night,” Daus said. “She knew she had a problem. She was working on it.” 

When it became clear that Jordan would not recover, that she had suffered a neurological death, or brain death, her family immediately knew what she would have wanted.

Daus had worked as an administrative assistant for former Cleveland Clinic heart surgeon Dr. Gonzalo Gonzalez-Stawinski, a well-known doctor known as Gonzo, and the family had talked openly about organ donation. Daus knew without a doubt that Jordan would want to help others, even after she could no longer help herself. 

Two days later, the Daus family said goodbye to their daughter, their sister, their friend, outside the doors of an operating room. 

“She was still breathing with a machine, and you say goodbye and go home. It was a very difficult process but we we’re so happy we made that choice,” Daus said. 

In the end, Jordan was able to save four lives. She donated her heart, her liver, her pancreas and her right kidney to four men on the organ waiting list. 

“Can you just imagine what someone is going to feel when they get that call?” Daus said. “I saw that hope and faith and waiting, waiting for someone to save their life.” 

After an overdose, a victim typically dies from brain death, leaving the rest of the body healthy enough for organ transplantation, Budev said. And victims are typically young, in their 20s and 30s, she said. 

“These patients have great lung, cardiac, kidney and liver function and can donate several organs,” Budev said. 

And, thanks to new medications, even those infected with Hepatitis C, a disease typically contracted by sharing needles, can now donate organs. While most of these organs are given to recipients with hepatitis, they can be transplanted into other patients who accept them. 

Other new technologies have also helped expand the donor pool, both for overdose victims and those who die from other causes. 

Dr. Cristiano Quintini, a liver transplant surgeon at the Clinic, recently developed an ex vivo organ perfusion device that not only can preserve organs outside of the body, but also can test organs for function and viability. 

“Because of that they’re able to see a little bit more about the functioning of the organs that they couldn’t tell from the patient,” said Heather Mekesa, chief clinical officer at Lifebanc, the organ and tissue recovery organization for Northeast Ohio. 

All in all, the number of people who donated organs in Lifebanc’s 20-county region of Northeast Ohio increased 31 percent from 2012 to 2017. Last year, 155 people in the area donated 473 organs, saving 418 lives. 

Every donor matters

Even now, 1,642 people in Northeast Ohio alone remain on the waiting list for new organs, Lifebanc says, and the population is aging. Across the state, 2,910 people are waiting, and nationally, 114,311, as of Sept. 11. 

“For me, if we have one more donor than last year, that’s an impact. If that was your loved one waiting for an organ, that one organ makes all the difference in that family’s life,” Mekesa said. “Every one of those numbers is someone’s family.” 

Daus has heard from two of the men saved by her daughter’s organs. One gives thanks to Jordan every morning and evening with his wife and even sometimes visits the cemetery where she is buried. 

“The system failed Jordan. She didn’t get a second chance, but she left a huge legacy,” Daus said. “There were families that were given Christmases and Thanksgivings and birthdays.” 

The circumstances of Henz’ lung donor’s death aren’t public but she doesn’t take the gift of life for granted. She wants to honor the woman whose lungs she now holds close to her heart. She plans to start volunteering with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, as well as Lifebanc.

“The only reason we’re able to do what we do is because of donor families,” Budev said. “If it weren’t for that fact, [Henz] wouldn’t be here today, and many of my other patients wouldn’t be here today.”

Update hourly