LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The American opioid epidemic has shown no signs of abating, with death rates skyrocketing in what medical officials call one of the worst public health crises of our time. But along with the tragic loss of life, the epidemic has another consequence: a record-high uptick in organs available for donation.
While scores of young and otherwise healthy people continue to die, they are in turn saving the lives of people on waiting lists who are often confined to dialysis machines and hospitals rooms.
"I didn't know she wanted to be a donor. I'm so glad, I'm so proud of her," Jane Tyler said of her daughter Kristen, who was 38 when she died of an overdose in Louisville. "Kristin loved making people happy. She loved making people laugh. She loved to party, she had rowdy friends, and she was a rowdy girl. But I loved her so much. I could put up with the rowdiness right now."
When an overdose victim has elected to be an organ donor, medical personnel work quickly to assess and preserve the health of the organs. If suitable, the local organ procurement organization (OPO) will step in and call transplant centers in the region to try to find recipients. In some cases, organs may have been compromised but are still viable.
"Sometimes I can't find a recipient, and it's awful to have to know for that family, they're not going to get the 'silver lining,' if you will... the only happy thing that can come out of a loved one overdosing," said Ashley Rakityan, a clinical coordinator with Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates.
VICE News captures how one woman's overdose illuminates a trend in organ donation. In never-before-seen coverage, we follow Kristen Tyler's departing gift, to a woman in need, and we explore with that recipient and her doctor, the efficacy of accepting it.
This segment originally aired January 15, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.