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Indiana opioid crisis leads to more organ donors

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Across the nation, the opioid epidemic has gripped communities, creating various effects, one being increased organ donors.

Indiana doctors, coroners and organ donor organizations have all seen this new trend rise in the Hoosier State.

Tammy Hackman and Jerry Gilliland have lived it.

"I truly believe I was very close to dying, quite honestly," said Gilliland, 63, who spent a year and half suffering and waiting for lungs.

"She got so low, she got so low down with these drugs and it took her down. That was her final (undoing)," said Hackman, an Indianapolis mother.

The 63-year-old was fighting death.

"Even with oxygen, you could walk 20 feet and be out of breath," Gilliland recalled thinking of his son's Utah wedding in August 2014. "15 steps halfway up, I had to stop and take a breath. I think I went through 40 tanks of oxygen in 5 days when I was out there."

Meanwhile, Hackman's daughter, Tristan, was dying in her battle with opioid abuse.

"She got messed up in a lot of drugs, and things like that, and it just got worse and worse and worse," the mom thought back to 2005 when she first noticed a change in her daughter who'd gone away to college.

Meanwhile, Gilliland's diagnosis wasn't getting any better either.

"I was deteriorating. I had initially been approved for transplant in November of 2014 and I was on oxygen 24/7," said Gilliland.

One phone call would change everything for the Hackman and Gilliland families.

Hackman and her grandson, Bryce, got the first call in late May 2015.

"The whole day I see flashes kind of," the now 10-year-old boy detailed to FOX59's Beairshelle Edmé.

Bryce was having a 'good day'. His mom, Tristan, took him bowling, and he won round after round of his favorite arcade game.

"That day—I—I just loved because I got to spend time with my mom," he said. "It was just fun!"

It was Bryce's perfect 6th birthday, until it wasn’t.

"We had gone and spent the day with her and an hour and half later, she overdosed on heroin," Hackman recalled her 28-year-old daughter's last moments. "Of course, you always want that miracle. You always hope that miracle can happen to you... just something in my heart told me that we had to make something better for someone."

Paramedics rushed Tristan to the emergency room, but after 48 hours she still had no brain activity, despite Narcan reviving her and her doctors' efforts.

Family couldn't find her license and never knew if she registered as an organ donor. Ultimately, her mom decided to donate her organs.

When asked by Edmé if she ever considered not doing so, the 59-year-old quickly answered, "No! Never not considered it."

Bryce, then 6-year-old, says he also felt it was the right thing to do.

Gilliland got the second call days after Tristan's death.

"I was at work in Kokomo and got a call saying, 'We have a set of lungs for you'," he vividly recalled.

He had to make a decision, one that’s becoming more and more common in Indiana and the nation.

"Because of the increased number of (opioid) deaths, we have had more organ and tissue donations," detailed Dr. Leeandrea Sloan, the Marion County coroner.

"I would say in our program’s history, we probably do 40 to 60 percent increased risk donors," said Dr. David Roe, IU Health's medical director of lung transplants. "We do a lot."

"Well, we’ve certainly seen an increased trend of organ donors over the last several years from where we were probably five years ago," explained Kelli Hanner, the Indiana Donor Network's CEO.

Each of these experts say the same thing: the opioid crisis has led to more organ donors.

Jerry, a dying man, accepted an organ from an overdose victim, Tristan.

"It was very reassuring from the doctors to say 'We take every precaution, and if we don’t feel it's a good transplant, we’re not going to proceed with it,'" the double lung transplant recipient said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), 20 people die each day in the nation waiting for an organ. DHHS says at least 113,000 people are currently on waiting lists, just like Gilliland was.

The CDC's latest data from 2017 also shows more than 70,000 Americans overdosed and died, more than 47,000 because of opioids.

Many of those victims are viable organ donors, but the stigma around the drug use that killed them keeps them from saving a life.

"It certainly is different," Hanner said. "Before, gosh, 15 years ago, we wouldn’t even have probably considered taking an organ from someone who was a drug overdose, but the need is just so great that the criteria changes all the time."

New technology allows doctors to immediately screen all donors, including overdose victims, for diseases like HIV or Hepatitis C.

"Everyone is really at an increased risk because you never really know what goes on behind closed doors," Roe said.

Roe explains this philosophy with his patients.

"Utilizing those organs is really not an issue from a safety perspective," he said. "There is no difference in survival, at least for lung transplant, when you’re using a donor who has an increased risk versus a donor who does not."

The IU Health pulmonary, critical care physician tells FOX59 that four to six hours after blood testing of an overdose victim’s organs results show doctors if there are any diseases or risks of exposure.

Once they rule out any risk, physicians go back to the patient to consult and educate them, and again get their consent to transplant the organs, which are considered increased risk.

Tristan’s lungs came back cleared and Roe saved Jerry's life with them.

"I always tell folks, ‘We’ll give you the right lungs, at the right time, for the right reason,’ and he fit all three of those perfectly and he's done extraordinarily well," the doctor said.

About 24 hours after his double lung transplant, Jerry was off the oxygen tank.

"He received what we would call a pristine donor, almost a perfect donor," Roe explained.

Hackman received closure, and though she never got that miracle, her daughter donated one to Jerry, who tells FOX59 he remains eternally grateful.

Tristan also saved other lives, donating her heart and kidneys

Gilliland and Hackman have since built a relationship, and each vigorously advocate for organ donation, as do the staffers at the Indiana Donor Network.

The network's CEO wants Hoosiers to know that hospitals must honor any person's decision to be an organ and/or tissue donor.

Donate Life Indiana estimates that nearly 4 million Hoosiers have signed up as donors, but nationwide the number of people waiting for an organ exceeds the number of donors, according to DHHS.

Indiana residents can register through three ways:

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