After a public plea for a living transplant donor, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk successfully underwent a liver transplant May 19th at a Toronto Hospital. This case took the already enormously complicated ethics of organ donation and turned the volume up to eleven.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m thrilled for Melnyk and his family that he found a donor, and that the surgery went successfully.
When news initially broke that the University Health Network and Melnyk were asking the public for a living liver donor, the reaction from the majority of the public and the medical community was that of unease. Few of us are under the illusion that we live in a completely equitable system, but rarely are we confronted with this blatant of a disparity. A billionaire sports owner asking a living Canadian to donate an organ…it just doesn’t look good. That’s not to say most of us would not have taken the exact same action had we been either the patient or the physician involved. Melnyk was reportedly quite hesitant to make this type of public plea, likely aware of the optics of the situation. From a transplant physician’s perspective, given how organ donation is still pitifully undersupplied despite large-scale awareness efforts, they would be foolish to ignore the lure of a high-profile celebrity attracting new donors and awareness. Details regarding Melnyk’s exact condition have yet to be released to the public, but reports indicated that time was of the essence. They were advocating for their patient, and I can’t fault them for that.
Hundreds of prospective donors came forward, and one was selected to be Melnyk’s donor. Happy ending, right?
Here’s where my frustration starts to build. Of the hundreds that came forward to offer a sizeable part of their liver to Melnyk, only 26 elected to remain on the living donor list after they were told that they would not be Melnyk’s donor. While some would argue that we should be thrilled that 26 individuals are new living organ donor candidates and will save lives (and yes, those individuals are true heroes), I can’t help but wonder about the hundreds who were prepared to be a donor for Melnyk, but not for the next patient in need. Was it a hope of secondary gain in donating to a billionaire? Was it that they felt a personal link to a celebrity figure that they wouldn’t feel towards a stranger? Whatever the reason, this needs to be addressed urgently. There is potentially a large segment of the population that may be willing to be a living donor if they were made more intimately aware of the personal stories of those on the transplant list.
Despite the fact that I bleed blue and white, I can attest that the Ottawa Senators are a classy organization that have done great charitable work. Over the past few months, they have brought tremendous awareness to colon cancer screening following the cancer diagnosis of GM Bryan Murray. Many of my patients who previously refused colonoscopies are now agreeing to them after hearing Murray’s story.
But the Senators’ new obligations in the field of organ donation cannot be understated. Their owner received a liver because of his money and fame. That is not up for debate. The Ottawa Senators and Eugene Melynk are now indebted to the citizens of Ontario in perpetuity. They have been active on social media promoting beadonor.ca , and next hockey season they will likely show advertisements during games promoting organ donation. As far as I’m concerned, that is only the tip of the iceberg of their new responsibilities. Unlike other “awareness” campaigns, this needs to be an active campaign rather than simply educational. Booths at every gate with the ability to register in real-time with Service Ontario as either a living or deceased donor. Hand-held devices to pass along rows at games to register. Similar technology used at every Senators promotional event and media scrum. The Senators using their clout throughout the league to have similar technology used at other arenas, and other sports leagues. Lastly, they need to work with provincial transplant groups to spread the stories of transplant patients, and coordinate it with their efforts to attract more living donors. The next patient in urgent need of a liver will come soon enough, and deserves the exact same public response that Melnyk received. Transplant networks should be overwhelmed with living donor offers, and until that happens, the Senators cannot rest.
There are 1,500 people on the transplant list in Ontario waiting for a heart, liver or kidney. The Ottawa Senators and Eugene Melnyk have an obligation to contribute their money and organizational resources to a system that should treat all of the patients like billionaires.