SPORTS

Hundreds offer to be living liver donors for critically ill Sens owner Melnyk

05/15/2015 11:49 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - More than 400 people had offered to give part of their liver to Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk by late Friday, a day after his family and the NHL team made an urgent public appeal for living donors.

Melnyk, 55, who has been battling health issues for months, was admitted to hospital three weeks ago due to the onset of liver-related complications. His condition is considered critical.

Dr. Gary Levy, director of the living donor liver transplant program at Toronto's University Health Network, said Friday the response has been so overwhelming the transplant team hopes to have a donor match for Melnyk within 72 to 96 hours.

Melnyk had been reluctant to make a public appeal, but loved ones convinced him to reach out for a potential donor after members of his family were found not to be suitable. A living donor transplant is Melnyk's best option because he has rare AB blood; a live donor doesn't need to have a matching blood type, whereas an organ from a deceased donor must be a perfect match.

The UHN transplant team will be reviewing and screening applications throughout the weekend.

"We're now working our way through over 400 applications," said Levy. "There are a lot of very generous people out there ... They don't want to see people suffer. They're just a very, very brave, kind group of people."

Brave may be the operative word.

Potential donors, who go through a lengthy battery of physical and psychological testing, are told they could face a major surgery that removes 70 to 75 per cent of their liver for transplant. Their own liver will regenerate in eight to 10 weeks.

But the operation will leave a scar that either runs from the "breast bone to the belly button" or a hockey-stick shaped scar that runs under the ribs, said Levy, adding that the donor would be off work for six to eight weeks recovering.

Then there are the risks.

The chance of dying is one in 250 to one in 300, though UHN has had no donor deaths after performing more than 700 live liver transplants, 74 of those in the last year.

Would-be donors, who must be aged 18 to 55 and in good physical health, are warned they could develop infection, bleeding, pneumonia or blood clots as a result of the surgery, said Levy.

"And obviously there's the psychological trauma. They're going through a life-threatening event. So we put them through a very careful psychological evaluation," he said.

"If the recipient were to die, that could have a lot of trauma on the donor. That's something we always talk to them about in detail."

In the face of those risks, let alone going through a painful, debilitating surgery, why would someone volunteer to help a stranger, albeit one with a high public profile?

Levy said there are a number of reasons, beyond a generosity of spirit. "Sometimes it's because of something that's happened in their past — a parent may have died, a child may have died, and they feel an obligation to help."

The UHN program, which is operated in conjunction with the Hospital for Sick Children, provides transplants for both adults and kids and is the largest in North America.

The Ottawa Senators said early Friday that staff had received more than 2,000 calls about potential live donations following their appeal, leading to the question of whether having a public presence and owning a popular and financially powerful organization helps someone jump the transplant queue.

"This isn't a matter of trying to jump the queue," said Melanie Kearns of the Canadian Liver Foundation. "Obviously, based on Mr. Melnyk's health, he's already on the waiting list for a liver transplant and he's probably fairly high on that list because he's very ill."

Other families have made similar appeals through mainstream media and social media, including the Wagners of Kingston, Ont., who found a living liver donor for one of their twin daughters, she said.

"This public appeal is part of a trend that we're seeing. People are taking these measures because they're desperate, because they have no other options. So they're reaching out in whatever way that they can."

The need is a result of the shortage of organs from deceased donors, she said. "And hopefully it impresses upon people the importance of signing up as organ donors."

Levy agreed, saying 40 per cent of people listed for a transplant die on the list.

So he understands why any patient facing fatal liver failure and their families would appeal to the public for help.

"When you've got death staring you in the face, you will take steps to try not to die."

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For more information, see the University Health Network's liver donor manual at: http://www.uhn.ca/MOT/PatientsFamilies/Clinics_Tests/Documents/LivingDonor_LiverDonorManual.pdf

Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.

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