The heroin epidemic grips our nation and Maryland has been hit especially hard. There was a 72 percent jump in the number of heroin-related deaths in the first nine months of 2016. According to the third quarter report released by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 918 people died January through September.
Everyone involved wishes this problem would go away, especially the friends and families who've lost loved ones, law enforcement, and health professionals. But the nearly 4,000 people in Maryland, who have been waiting for a life-saving organ, are being helped by the epidemic.
Luis Burks, 22, died from a heroin overdose July 16, 2016. Lori Blankenship wasn't able to save her son, but Burks was able to save other families from the grief she's now experiencing.
“Three people, and as many people that maybe donating his lungs to science is going to help,” Blankenship said.
Burks' two kidneys and liver were all donated to people on the transplant organ list. They finally got the call they had been waiting for, but it came at the expense of Blankenship’s son.
“The problem that he had, I didn't even know it. And he was living with me and I didn't even know it,” she said.
Blankenship didn't recognize the signs in front of her and around her house. It wasn’t until after she started reading about addiction that she began to remember the needle caps, the empty soda bottles filled with a little water, and she later found a bag with naloxone. Blankenship wishes she knew earlier, so she could’ve tried to help him.
“My son was a really good boy. If you ever met him, you would never think that he would do something like that and I really feel like he deserved another chance,” said Blankenship.
Burks never got that chance, but was able to give it to others by being an organ donor. The number of organ donors who have died from an overdose continues to grow.
Nationally, 1 in 11 organ donors died from an overdose. In Maryland in 2015, that number was 1 in 6, according to the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland. While they haven’t released the final numbers yet, the organization found that in 2016 the number grew to 1 in 4 organ donors.
“I will tell this was about 4 or 5 or 6 percent of our donors back in 2010, so to say this is a growing cause of death in our area is really an understatement,” said Charlie Alexander, the president & CEO of the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland. “We had 25 percent more organ donors this year than last year, which is a substantial increase. It's a very static number year over year typically across the country and we can attribute that almost directly to the opioid epidemic.”
Dr. Rolf Barth is the director of liver transplantation for the University of Maryland School of Medicine. At the University of Maryland Medical Center, he sees first-hand the lethal effect of heroin and how that tragedy can be turned into a positive.
“Organs from these donors can actually be excellent so for most instances, there's no long-term damage done to the organs for people who have overdosed, it's really kind of an extremely bittersweet epidemic,” said Dr. Barth.
And thanks to technology, Alexander said there are new ways to ensure these kind of transplants are safe.
“We have the ability now to really understand whether a donor had things like hepatitis C or HIV literally within days of their death,” said Alexander.
He said it's not without risk but they have minimized the risk and they always notify the recipient.
In the event of a fatal overdose, the brain may die but the most of the body can be salvaged. In some cases that means eight people can be saved through organ donation, and more than 50 people through tissue donation.
“I mean that's great. Three people keep their lives. Even though I did lose my son, still three people have their lives,” said Blankenship.
Burks leaves behind a mother, siblings, and a 3-year-old daughter, but out in the world, there's some of him that's still alive.
“Oh, definitely. That's why I would like to meet these people because all them have something of my son inside them, so yah,” Blankenship said.
While this problem is helping some people, Alexander said the number one message of their organization is prevention. Blankenship also wants people to learn the signs of heroin addiction, and to step in even if it doesn't change the end result. And in the event of tragedy, to keep an open mind about organ donation or to have a conversation with your loved ones now about your final wishes.