Opioid overdoses lead to increase in organ donation

NEENAH, Wis - The number of organ donors in Wisconsin who died of drug overdoses has been increasing, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

State health leaders said in 2012, only six percent of organ donors in Wisconsin had died of an overdose. In 2017, that number more than doubled to 13 percent.

Rhonda Rozelle lost her son Zachary in 2016 when he died of an opioid overdose.

"He was a beautiful boy. He had a great big heart," said Rozelle.

Zachary was 30-years-old when he overdosed, shortly before heading back in for treatment.

"For whatever reason, he decided to use again, and someone sold him heroin laced with fetanyl, and he OD'ed," said Rozelle, "They were able to bring him back to life, took him to the hospital, and after a couple of hours, they told us he was brain dead. And that was the end of his life."

The hospital approached Zachary's parents about donating his organs. Rozelle said their answer came from above.

"The strongest thing was just wanting him to live. And if there was anything that they could do to help him live, I wanted that so badly. I was willing to give anything I could to him just so he could live," said Rozelle.

He was able to live on through others. They donated three of his organs, his heart and two kidneys.

"We knew that would be something he'd want to do because he was a very loving and giving person," said Rozelle.

Rozelle doesn't think a lot of people know those who die of overdoses can also donate their organs. 

Dr. Tony D'Alessandro is an organ transplant surgeon at UW Health in Madison, Wis. He said opioids don't affect the organs, so his team goes through the same process they would with anyone who dies.

"Just because someone had an opioid overdose does not mean that they cannot be donors. And in fact, many times is the only solace that a family will have in that tragic setting where someone who's young and healthy overdoses," said Dr. D'Alessandro.

He said overdoses can often come as a shock to families.

"These really are tragic circumstances that really come on fairly quickly, and many times, the families don't even know that they were having issues with opioid and so being able to get something out of this at the end of life setting is important for families," said Dr. D'Alessandro.

Rozelle said it meant to world to her when she learned her son's kidney saved Leo Davis in Tuscon, Ariz.

"They said they got a donor that matched so that was so wonderful," said Michelle Davis, Leo's wife.

Michelle said when they found out who gave the kidney, Leo called Rozelle.

"He said 'Hello, Rhonda. This is Leo, and I just want to say thank you for your son giving me the kidney,' and he said, 'And I hope to see you,'" said Michelle.

"It was an amazing feeling to get that, just to know that our son is still living through other people," said Rozelle.

Michelle said they got an extra year to travel together before Leo passed away after becoming septic and facing multiple complications. 

Although Rozelle would do anything to have her son back, she's glad, though her tragedy, she could give the gift of time.

"I knew that there were people out there feeling the same way about their loved ones, and I just decided that we had to do it. We had to donate his organs to help other people," said Rozelle.

Rozelle encourages others to do the same.

Dr. D'Alessandro added it is important to discuss wishes about donating organs. He said in the United States, there are more than 120 thousand people waiting on the transplant list, and the number of organs available consistently falls short.

For more information on becoming a donor, visit http://donatelifewisconsin.org/

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