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The opioid epidemic from a transplant surgeon’s point of view

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Recent reports show that the number of organ transplants is rising. While this may be good news to those on an organ waitlist, the reason for the rise — opioid overdose deaths — is troubling.

Dr. Michael Englesbeis a transplant surgeon and an associate professor of transplant surgery at the University of Michigan. He joined Stateside to share his perspective on the opioid crisis.  

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

On the correlation between overdose and organ donations

“In 2016, we did more organ transplants and there were more organ donors than there had ever been in the United States…. [The increase] is almost completely related to the opioid epidemic.”

“The best data that I’ve seen is from New England…. In 2010, they received about four percent of their organ donors from overdose. In 2015, that number was about 27 percent. It’s almost a seven or eightfold increase over five years. Certainly, it has been remarkable, and I’ve seen that in my day-to-day work.

Tragedy and silver linings

“Tragedy happens within families, and we see our work as transplant professionals to try to make some good out of the tragedy. We’re doing a lot of transplants and that is saving lives.”

“As a transplant surgeon, you go to other hospitals in the Midwest and you essentially operate on organ donors. In the process of doing that you don’t usually spend a lot of time pondering their journey and how they got there because it’s just not really conducive to doing the work.

“But a couple years ago, myself and some of my colleagues have really noticed how common [overdoses] had been. In Michigan, about three years ago, we started a policy that before we operate on these people and make an incision in their chest and their abdomen to take out their organs, we pause and we do a safety checklist and then we give thanks.”

“During experiences like that you do occasionally just ponder how this person got there, and looking at the donor, I started to notice how perfect they were, how young they were, what great organ donors they were, and how sad that was.”

Pondering an organ donor's journey to overdose

“I can think of a time about three years ago when we went to a hospital and we got the liver, and we were coming home and one of the medical students asked me a lot of questions about the organ donor. To be honest, as a transplant surgeon you don’t think about their journey very much, you just focus on taking care of your recipient.

“It really made me pause and listen to their questions. They’re a 25 year old — it was all new to them. They were very curious about the 25 year old I just procured the organs from and how they got from an injury to their knee in college to overdose. It really struck me that there’s a role I have as a surgeon to make sure at least my patients don’t go on that journey.”

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