Life out of tragedy: Organs donated by overdose victims are saving lives
By Laura Ungar
Carrie Parsley begged the first emergency room worker she saw for answers about her youngest daughter: “Is she OK? Is she still alive?”
“She is for now,” was all the woman would say.
Parsley soon learned the terrible truth: Her 22-year-old daughter, Veronica Jecker, lay silent and still in a hospital bed, brain-dead from an overdose of fentanyl.
Parsley prayed for a miracle.
“I didn’t want her to suffer. But I was willing to feed her. I was willing to help her walk. I was willing to do whatever it took,” she said. “I said ‘I’d give my life for her.’ And it wasn’t an option.”
All Parsley could do was hold her daughter’s hand for a few more days, brush her hair and say goodbye.
But from unspeakable tragedy came renewed life.
Jecker, who died two years ago in July, donated her organs to save three lives — a 39-year-old carpenter and father who needed a kidney, a 13-year-old girl who needed a liver, and a 56-year-old grandfather who needed a kidney and pancreas.
“I’m thankful … for part of my daughter living on and helping other people,” said Parsley, 46, of Louisville. “She was such a caring person. She loved so deeply.”
Stories like Jecker's are increasingly common.
One in five Kentucky organ donors died with drugs in their systems, said Shelley Snyder, executive director of the Kentucky Circuit Court Clerks’ Trust for Life, a nonprofit organization that promotes organ and tissue donation.
Overdoses killed 11% of Kentucky donors last year, compared with less than 1% in 2000.
As the opioid crisis rages, the Trust for Life, Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates and Volunteers of America Mid-States are entering into one of the only partnerships of its kind in the nation. They hope to promote more organ donation among families affected by addiction.
Organs harvested from people who die of overdoses are considered “increased risk organs" because the donors lived lives that made them more prone to drug-fueled diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.
But organs are tested, and unless they come from donors known to be infected, there’s only a tiny chance of contracting a disease through a transplant.
And despite common misconceptions, drug cravings are never transferred by organs.
“Addiction is a neuro issue. It’s all in the brain, and we’re not transplanting the brain,” said Dr. Christopher Jones, a transplant surgeon who serves on the KODA board.
Organs from overdose victims “are very safe. They’re just like any other organ you would get, honestly.”
Since Jecker's death, Parsley has made it a mission to share the message of organ donation — and the dangers of drug use.
“I really feel this is something that she would want me to do, because she would want people to learn from her mistakes and try to understand what happened to her could happen to them,” Parsley said, choking up. “I think about her every day, sometimes all day long. I want other people to remember her. … I want everybody to know this is something she wants.
"She wants to save people as much as she can.”
A young life lost to drugs
Jecker struggled with drugs for nearly half her life. A relative started giving her the opioid Lortab for menstrual cramps, her mom said, and she got hooked. “It just snowballed from there."
Jecker began smoking pot and abusing the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, hiding her drug use from Parsley and her husband.
In her later teen years, Jecker gave birth to a daughter and dropped out of high school. But she managed to get a GED and land a job working the line at Ford, where Parsley also works as a crane operator.
Parsley said addiction never eclipsed Jecker's caring spirit. When she turned 18, she excitedly told her mom that she’d signed her driver’s license to become an organ donor because it might help someone in the future.
At 21, Jecker finally admitted to her mom she had a problem with pills.
One day in May 2017, Jecker texted Parsley from work: "Mom, if you don’t hear from me for a few days, don’t be alarmed. I’m OK."
She told Parsley that she’d approached a union representative asking for help, and Ford paid to get her a taxi to The Brook, which offers addiction treatment. She left straight from the plant.
She stayed 30 days, then relapsed soon after she got out. She went back again.
Parsley tried to support her recovery. A few days before Jecker died, Parsley went to The Brook to bring her daughter a bag of clothes and some cigarettes. Jecker came out, dressed in black and wrapped in a blanket.
Parsley worried she might be sick and asked if she was OK. Jecker said she just felt a little cold.
Parsley sensed something more was wrong and choked up. Jecker told her not to cry.
“I can’t help it,” Parsley replied. “I just want you to get better.”
“Mama,” she said, “that’s what I’m doing.”
They hugged each other goodbye. Neither knew it would be for the last time.
Later that day, Parsley called The Brook to check on her daughter. She got nervous when she didn’t hear back.
The next morning, she was awakened by a phone call from Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
The woman at the other end of the line told her Jecker was there, and she should come quickly. Parsley sped all the way to the hospital.
She later learned that Jecker had met a young man who was also struggling with addiction and at one point signed herself out of rehab. She overdosed on a couch in his grandmother's apartment surrounded by other people.
Paramedics gave her Narcan to try and revive her. It started her heart but could not bring her back.
At the hospital, Parsley said, doctors kept her daughter alive for a few days to get the drugs out of her system before harvesting her organs.
Parsley treasures those days — a little more time to touch her and talk to her and hold her hand.
Organs from overdose victims save lives
Jecker was lucky enough never to contract a disease like hepatitis C or HIV from drug use. But others who struggle with addiction do, and Jones, the transplant surgeon, said those who receive their organs are told about the risk of disease.
Organs are tested, but in some cases a donor contracts a virus so close to the time of death that it doesn't yet show up.
“There’s only a one in 12,000 to one in 15,000 chance that the testing KODA does doesn’t pick up a communicable disease,” Jones said, adding that the risk of dying on the transplant list is much, much higher.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, an average of 18 patients a day across the nation died waiting for a transplant in 2017.
Some transplant centers will use organs that test positive for disease in certain circumstances, with the recipient’s consent. A recipient may choose to take an organ even if the donor had hepatitis C, for example, knowing it can be cured.
Often, the doctor said, overdose recipients die young, meaning their organs are generally in good shape overall.
"People tend to do very well with them,” Jones said.
The new partnership between Volunteers of America, KODA and Trust for Life seeks to share such facts with more families. Through the effort, KODA is educating VOA staff as well as clients about joining the national organ donor registry and inviting donor families affected by addiction to share their stories.
Trust For Life’s Snyder, who is also vice president of strategic partnerships for KODA, said the initiative comes as Kentucky faces a potential shortage of organs. This follows changes in state rules about driver's license renewals, when most people sign up to become organ donors.
Kentucky is moving toward an eight-year driver's license renewal cycle, and by summer 2023, residents will no longer be able to get the current four-year licenses. Snyder said that means fewer chances to sign up as an organ donor.
Becoming an organ donor gives families an opportunity to memorialize their loved ones in a meaningful way, said Jennifer Hancock, president and CEO of VOA Mid-States.
“For families in grief and mourning," she said, "it’s somewhat gratifying to know people have an opportunity to live because of that ultimate gift.”
Parsley tears up when she thinks about her daughter's organs working within other peoples' bodies. She keeps a letter from KODA, sent the month after Jecker's death, describing the circumstances of their lives.
It says the grandfather who got her left kidney and pancreas had suffered from Type 1 diabetes and chronic high blood pressure but was doing well after the transplant. The father who got Jecker's right kidney was looking forward to returning to work as a carpenter. And the young teen was getting ready to start eighth grade.
Parsley views the organs inside them as “kind of part of my child.”
But Jecker left another legacy, too — her 6-year-old daughter, Raelyn.
Parsley plans to spend Easter weekend with Raelyn, the first full weekend they’ve spent together since her mother's death. Raelyn will get a huge Easter basket full of goodies.
Parsley has told Raelyn about Jecker's drug use in terms she can understand.
"She knows (Jecker) took too much medicine,” Parsley said. “She knows her mom’s in heaven, and it's something she did that she wasn’t supposed to do, and that it was drugs.”
But Parsley also tells Raelyn that her mom was “awesome” and “loved everybody.” A large, framed selfie of Jecker hangs in her living room. It shows her smiling widely in front of rolling hills and woods, her kind eyes sparkling.
“I let her know that her mom was the one who chose to give her organs to people who are sick.”
Although Raelyn is too young to fully grasp the concept of organ donation, Parsley knows she's imparting a lesson the little girl can understand: That a simple act of kindness and generosity can save lives.