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Organ Donations From Fatal Drug Overdoses Double

Allen G. Breed
A doctor uses a bronchoscope to examine donated lungs in his lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Organ donations from fatal drug overdoses have doubled from 2014.

Charles Grugan's drug addiction took a toll on his family.

They tried to help him, but on Oct. 12, 2011, Grugan 33, overdosed on heroin. He never recovered.

While on life support in a regional hospital, doctors approached his family and showed them his driver's license.

Grugan had made the decision to be an organ donor when he was 18 years old.

His heart, liver and kidneys were successfully transplanted into three people.

"It was a silver lining for us," Grugan's' mother, Eileen Grugan, said. "Donating Charles' organs to others was the thing that kept our family together and pulled us through this grief.

"I really don't know how we would have gotten through it," she said.

'Out of tragedy, you can save a lot of lives'

Nationally, organ donations from someone who died of a drug overdose doubled from 625 in 2014 to more than 1,200 by the end of 2016, according to the Organization for Organ Procurement and Transportation.

Regionally, so far in 2017, the Gift of Life Program said of the 472 people who donated organs, 134 of those died of a drug overdose.

"I think it's a tragedy having such a large number of people dying from drug overdoses. On the other hand, organ donation is very important. Out of tragedy you can save a lot of lives."

According to the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, 37 people from Lancaster County were organ donors over the past two years. Nine of them were overdose victims who died in one of the county's four hospitals.

"Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ," said Rick Hasz, vice president of clinical services for Gift of Life.

Eastern Pennsylvania, which includes Lancaster County, is part of Gift of Life's coverage area. The organization partners with all four hospitals in the county and has recovered organs here from people who have fatally overdosed on drugs.

"I think it's a tragedy having such a large number of people dying from drug overdoses," said Dr. Zakiyah Kadry, a transplant surgeon at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. "On the other hand, organ donation is very important. Out of tragedy you can save a lot of lives."

'Overdose donors'

Kadry said she has used organs for transplants that have come from people who fatally overdosed in recent years.

"The overdose donors are young and have relatively healthy organs," Kadry said, noting every organ goes through rigorous testing to see if there are any infections, including hepatitis C and HIV.

She also said every recipient is made fully aware of where their organ is coming from and what condition it is in.

"You have to remember that people who are on the list to receive an organ are typically very sick and are usually very happy to have the organ," Kadry said.

Hasz said nationally there are about 117,000 people on the waiting list for an organ transplant. He said last year there were 33,000 organs available for transplants.

According to Gift of Life, the average age of a typical organ donor is 48, while the average age of an organ donor who died of a drug overdose is 32.

Decision to donate

Eileen Grugan remembers returning to the family's Delaware County home and finding her son in an "odd position" on a chair with his eyes open. She said she felt his skin, and it was cold.

"I called 911, and they tried to talk me through CPR," she said. "The paramedics came, but they didn't carry Narcan at that time. All of a sudden an officer walked into the house and started CPR."

After several minutes of CPR, the police officer found a faint pulse and her son was rushed to the hospital, she said.

Although the hospital was able to keep him breathing and his heart pumping artificially, four different tests showed there were no brain waves. He was pronounced dead.

"That is a critical time for the family to think about organ donation," Hasz said. "You are talking to a family at the worst time in their whole lives and asking them to make a decision."

Hasz said families see a heart beat on the monitor and see their loved one "breathing" and are often hesitant to let them go.

Hasz said data shows about half of the families in that position typically turn down a decision to donate organs and about half regret that decision six months later.

When the doctors showed the family Grugan's driver's license with the organ donor notation, "It was like the arm of God wrapped around us to show us another way," his mother said.

She, her husband and their son's two sisters decided to donate his organs.

'I'm meant to do something great'

Eileen Grugan said the family hoped and prayed that her son's organs "would be OK to do this gift."

The Grugan family have received responses from the three people who received his heart, liver and kidneys, and they hope to to one day meet the people who are alive because of his organs.


"Charles used to say, 'I'm meant to something great, I just don't know what it is, I just know it's going to happen.' Charles did do something special with his life. He just never knew what it was going to be."


"It's such an easy thing to do, for people to sign up to be organ donors," Hasz said. "It makes the decision that much easier for a family."

He said people can register to become an organ donor at

"Charles used to say, 'I'm meant to something great, I just don't know what it is, I just know it's going to happen,' " his mother said.

"Charles did do something special with his life," she said. "He just never knew what it was going to be."