The opioid crisis in the U.S. has cost tens of thousands of lives, but has also offered a glimmer of hope for thousands of patients waiting for an organ transplant.
From 2013 to 2017, the number of organ donors who died of drug intoxication nearly tripled from 560 to roughly 1500 people according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN.)
Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald is the recipient of one of those organs.
Sherald was recently commissioned to paint Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
“My world was a better place waking up and seeing her face. I feel like we look at her and see ourselves. She is just a great woman,” Sherald said of Mrs. Obama.
Sherald was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which causes heart failure, when she was 30-years-old. Nine years later her heart nearly gave out, forcing her doctors to put her on the transplant list.
“You know you are waiting for somebody to die, which is the weird part, but I just see it as an extension of her life,” Sherald said.
On December 18, 2012, Sherald received her new heart.
She only later found out her donor had died from an opioid overdose.
“I didn’t realize how [she] used the drugs until way after the fact and her mom told me,” Sherald said. “Because when you are waiting for an organ, you sign this form that says you are willing to take an organ from a high risk donor.”
Organ donors are considered “high risk” if their characteristics places the recipient of their organs at risk of disease transmission.
Charlie Alexander, President and CEO of the Living Legacy Foundation that facilitates organ donation and transplants in Maryland, said that safety of an organ transplant is “paramount” to their process.
“We have the ability to test donors for the presence of infectious disease-- from things like Hepatitis C, Hep B, and HIV,” Alexander said.
Alexander also pointed out that there are people who are not willing to accept the risk of someone who has overdosed on drugs.
“Many people feel like there might be an impact to the organ from the drug use whereas in fact, sadly, most of our overdose patients are younger or otherwise healthy people who have just made a mistake through addiction or a one time event where they were exposed to a drug that was new to them or more powerful than they anticipated,” Alexander said.
But thanks to Sherald’s donor, she has lived on to make a difference with her work.
She has gone on to win the 2016 Outwin Boochever Competition, have her work showcased in museums, and has been tapped to paint a portrait of the first African-American first lady of the United States.
“I’m living my best life. For her. And for her family,” Sherald said.
Your organs could save a life one day. If you are interested in registering to be an organ donor, click here.