TOLEDO, Ohio — It was the 2 a.m. phone call that every parent dreads.
“Brandon is in the hospital, and he’s really sick,” the nurse told Laurie Clemons, rousing her from sleep. “Don’t take time to shower. Just get dressed and come now.”
Brandon Morris, 30, died May 16, 2015, after a heroin overdose. It blindsided his family, who believed he was in recovery after a recent stint in rehab.
But from horror bloomed a small bud of hope — he was able to donate his liver and save another’s life.
His donation is one of a growing share of total organ donors in northwest Ohio to die as a result of a drug overdose. For one Toledo-area transplant organization, nearly one in five donors is now an overdose patient.
Life Connection of Ohio, a nonprofit that coordinates transplants and provides support for donor families in 25 western Ohio counties from Toledo to Dayton, has noted “record numbers of organ donors” in the past three years, said Matthew Dewey, director of recovery services.
The increase of total organ donors occurs at the same time the percentage of donors who die as result of a drug overdose also rises. In 2013, 3 percent of Life Connection’s donors died as a result of a drug overdose. In 2015, it was 19 percent. So far in 2016, it’s 18 percent.
Fatal overdoses from heroin and other opioids killed 2,590 Ohioans last year, including 113 in Lucas County, according to the Ohio Department of Health and the Lucas County coroner’s office.
For the Clemons family of Northwood, knowing a part of Brandon lives on brings some comfort.
“Out of our tragedy, it’s someone else’s miracle,” said John Clemons, Brandon’s stepfather.
Brandon had been dropped off at ProMedica BayPark Hospital, unresponsive after a heroin overdose. Two rounds of the anti-overdose drug naloxone in the emergency room brought back a faint pulse, but it was not enough.
He was taken by air to ProMedica Toledo Hospital, where his family soon would learn he was brain dead.
Not being able to hug him was the hardest thing about saying good-bye, Mrs. Clemons said. He was hooked up to a tangle of tubes and wires, but they could run their fingers through his hair the same way they used to soothe him when he was a child and feeling sick.
It was hard to reconcile the otherwise healthy-looking young man, who returned from rehab back up to his normal weight, with the reality in front of them, she said.
“I just couldn’t believe him, healthy looking, lying there with a respirator,” she said.
“Brandon always told me he wouldn’t let this happen,” Mrs. Clemons said. He promised her she wouldn’t have to be another mother to lose a child to addiction.
But Mrs. Clemons held his hand one last time, a moment captured in a photograph that now sits prominently on their living room coffee table.
A representative from Life Connection came to talk to the family about donation. Mrs. Clemons said she didn’t realize her son was eligible, even though he had indicated on his driver’s license he wanted to be a donor.
“I didn’t think someone who had an addiction could donate,” she said.
The decision was an easy one.
“It’s what Brandon would want,” Mrs. Clemons said.
At 12:46 p.m., he was pronounced dead.
The doctor promised Mrs. Clemons he would take good care of her son. She watched them wheel Brandon down the hall to the elevator until the doors closed.
“And then I don’t see my boy anymore,” she said.
Dr. Jorge Ortiz, a transplant surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio, who was not involved in Brandon’s surgery, said intravenous drug use does not automatically disqualify someone from donating their organs.
Dr. Ortiz said he has seen an increase of “high-risk” donors, something he too thinks is in part because Ohio’s particularly hard hit by the heroin crisis. High risk donors include those who have served recent jail time and intravenous drug users.
“Too many people think they can’t help others in this terrible time, but they usually can,” he said, adding that organs are screened for diseases that can be contracted through drug abuse. “If the person has not contracted a disease because of the behavior, there probably is no side effect to the organ quality.”
“The person still has to pass away in the appropriate circumstances to be a donor,” he said. Time is essential to retrieving viable organs, so those who do not immediately get medical attention might not qualify.
UTMC performs about 70 kidney transplants a year, Dr. Ortiz said.
Potential recipients are informed that the organ comes from a “high-risk” donor so that they can make an informed decision, but Dr. Ortiz said the risk of disease is often overstated though never zero.
Risk of contracting a transmissible disease from an organ donation is typically about 0.3 percent, he said. Those receiving organs from “high-risk” donors have about a 0.6 percent risk of contracting disease, he said.
Meanwhile, people waiting for a kidney have an 8 percent chance of dying each year without a transplant, he said. For those waiting for a liver, heart, or lungs, it’s higher.
“Usually, they are associated with younger donors who are healthy in other aspects,” he said of fatal overdoses.
Mr. Dewey of Life Connection of Ohio said public education about donation is vital so families can make an informed decision.
It’s something he’s seen improve over the years, but said progress still needs to be made, including in the area of drug overdoses.
“When I first started doing this 10 years ago, most families had not discussed donation,” he said. “That’s why we try to emphasize education.”
Last year, Life Connection coordinated recoveries from 70 organ donors, resulting in 203 organ transplants. The most common cause of death for Life Connection’s donors is head trauma, accounting for about half of all donors.
More than 3,100 Ohioans are waiting for a transplant.
Mr. Dewey encouraged families to discuss end of life decisions in advance.
“Let your loved one know what you want to do,” Mr. Dewey said.
Grief is still ever-present for the Clemons family. Two men face charges in Brandon’s death. One was recently sentenced to three years in prison; another one goes to trial in October. Family members agree there’s hope the conclusion of the legal proceedings brings some closure.
His death left many unanswerable questions. His parents debate about how long his addiction festered: Maybe somewhere between six months and two years but there were earlier possible signs. Were the roots in those high school sports injuries and free-flowing pain prescriptions? They don’t know.
The confirmation came in September, 2014, on a day when Brandon was acting strangely, prompting Mr. Clemons to search his pockets. He found syringes and pills.
That late night call from the hospital would come only eight months later. To their knowledge, he hadn’t overdosed before.
The addiction hid the familiar parts of Brandon. It was hard to see the shy kid who came out of his shell when he transferred to Cardinal Stritch High School; the football player who proudly wore No. 23; the fiercely protective older brother to sister, Brittany; the helpful son around the house who started mowing the lawn at 9 years old and loved to cook and make up recipes.
“I try not to think of Brandon during that time, because that wasn’t Brandon,” Mr. Clemons said. Instead, he remembers the young man who introduced him to new music, was meticulously organized, and loved the Dallas Cowboys.
Knowing the recipient of Brandon’s liver also helps, Mrs. Clemons said.
He is George Henderson, 57, of East Canton, Ohio, who needed a liver after a first transplant didn’t take. The two families met last year to share photos and stories.
He and his wife, Rosalind, said it was important to meet their donor’s family.
Mr. Henderson is doing well after surgery and said he continually prays for the Clemons family. “I just thank God that I am still here,” he said.
Mrs. Henderson said they both are very aware of the sacrifice required for her husband to get well.
“To me, it just added to the wealth of our blessing,” Mrs. Henderson said of her meeting Mrs. Clemons. “She had to lose her only son. To me it made it more personal.”
Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/