At a news conference in Canadian Tire Centre to announce the launch of The Organ Project, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk made sure attendees received sheets to sign up for organ donation.
“It takes two minutes and they’re done,” Melnyk said.
The Organ Project is a philanthropic initiative that Melnyk created to make organ donation an easier process in North America. This is something that’s very near and dear to Melnyk, since he was saved by an anonymous liver donor on May 19, 2015.
“If you just talk to me, I’ll tell you what it was like spending 60-90 days waiting in the hospital in line for an organ,” the 57-year-old Melnyk said. “And in some cases, you can wait eight-to-10 years for a kidney in the United States, and it’s a tough gig going through the kind of emotions you run through when you’re sitting on a list waiting to either die or get an organ”
Melnyk’s health troubles that led to his experience with organ donation began in January of 2015 according to the Ottawa Sun.
It was at that point he learned he’d had a stroke. He received treatment and then moved to a rehabilitation centre in Toronto where he remained until late-March. While he was supposed to be getting better, his health continued to decline and he had symptoms typical of patients whose liver wasn’t functioning properly.
He was referred to Dr. Florence Wong at the Toronto General Hospital to find out exactly what was wrong.
She ran a battery of tests and, after looking at results while in Austria on business, she sent word to Melnyk he had to get to the hospital immediately.
It was there Melnyk learned he was much sicker than he thought.
During a meeting with the medical team at the hospital, Melnyk learned his liver wasn’t functioning properly and if a new one wasn’t found soon he wasn’t going to make it.
Melnyk was placed on a transplant list for a deceased donor, but couldn’t find a match for his AB blood type. Melnyk’s family and close friends were also tested but they weren’t matches.
Melnyk decided to announce his issues to the public through the Senators in hopes that he could find someone who could save his life. Five days later the team said Melnyk had undergone a successful liver transplant.
At the time, Melnyk’s ability to use his public platform as a way to get a donor was seen as controversial, but in the past he has said he was desperate and his family saw it as a last resort.
“There were no options left at that point. So I ask you, with no options left, would you not do everything you could to save a family member or close friend? That is exactly what my close friends and family did. Their last and only option was to make a public plea for a donor. It saved my life,” he said in an October 2016 story from the Ottawa Sun.
Despite ethical concerns, some good came out of the awareness Melnyk brought to his quest to find a new liver. Melnyk going public reportedly led to a spike in donor registrations in Ontario. The Sun reported that this was referred to as “The Melnyk Effect” by The Trillium gift of Life Network, which manages donor registry in Ontario. More than 2,000 people contacted Toronto General Hospital to see if they could be a match for Melnyk.
Along his journey to find a new liver, Melnyk saw flaws in the system the he desperately wanted to correct. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, on average 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant. Melnyk was almost one of these casualties, and this fact made a large impact on him.
“Why does this lineup exist, is the first question,” Melnyk said. “In Canada, 90 percent of people support organ donation and transplantation, yet only 28-30 percent are donors. The States is better. They’re at almost 48 percent. That’s still low.”
Melnyk saw signing up for organ donation as an easy decision – one that just takes a few minutes – but couldn’t quite figure out why so many people opted to not make that choice.
“(People) thought that you’re alive and they’re going to take out your organs and keep you on death row and all of this nonsense. No. You are absolutely, legally dead. You’re gone, you’re done,” Melnyk said. “They keep you pumping with ventilators and heart pumps and stuff but you’re done. Then they pull the plug, you die – that’s if they have to pull the plug. Many times you’re not even on that stuff. But they can tell when you’re dead. No question about it. There are very stringent tests under the declaration of death. And then you donate. So you’re not even there. You’re gone. It’s just getting people to understand that this is what it is, this is how it’s done. It’s very quickly, nobly, respectfully and the body is absolutely taken care of the same way as any other live patient would be, so we couldn’t find a single reason why.”
Melnyk wondered if the decision to not donate was a religious choice, but in his research he said he found that almost all major groups were fine with organ donation.
“As orthodox as orthodox can get everybody was OK, other than Buddhists [who], believe it or not, because they believe that the body has to be buried whole and religiously they can’t do it,” Melnyk said. “But every other religion, every other race, everybody around the world can donate organs and you can take any ethnic – it’s blind to ethnicity pretty much and we couldn’t come up with an excuse other than not understanding the process and how easy it is.”
In late May, Melnyk started on The Organ Project and then quickly found himself going all-out on it in about a month.
“We were in full swing by June,” Melnyk said. “I hired a CEO, I hired a group of people. Some of them were pro bono. Some of them were paid to help us put it all together, but you’re basically starting at scratch with a blank sheet of paper.”
Much of The Organ Project is based in educating people how organ donation saves lives and why they should sign up to be a donor. After all, the demand of organs is higher than supply and the first step involves increasing donation through teaching. The plan is for The Organ Project to start in Ontario, but then expand throughout Canada and then into the United States.
“It takes two minutes to fill out the forms,” Melnyk said, again explaining the ease of signing up.
But there are some ways that Melnyk believes organ donation can be made more streamlined at the governmental and medical level and the plan is to help with this as well.
He mentioned, “new legislation that would provide for easement on the actual registration.”
Melnyk said that as a charity, The Organ Project can help raise more awareness than a governmental agency and part of this involves Melnyk’s connection with the entertainment world and his knowledge of promoting. On March 31, he will hold a gala for The Organ Project at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto and one of the special guests will include country music star Carrie Underwood, who is married to Mike Fisher, one of Melnyk’s former players.
“I think it’s more of a marketing thing. I can do things that government agencies can’t do,” Melnyk said. “I can advertise in places they can’t. I can put bold advertisements and catchy advertisements out there, which agencies can’t do or don’t do.”
Melnyk’s desire to get The Organ Project off the ground and see it succeed is a clear tribute to him and how his near-death experience shaped him. He has taken his second chance and tried to use it to make sure others don’t feel the same pain he felt. He sees problems with the system and believes that with the right amount of support, changes can save lives, and he said he is working “full time” to see it through.
“All we’re asking you to do is to make the arrangement to say ‘I have made the decision that I want to donate my organs. Don’t get out of my way,’” Melnyk said. “I’m 57. I hope I have a lot of mileage with this liver that I can see a day very soon that there are no more lineups. You walk in, they diagnose you, and they say ‘stand by, it’ll be within the next two weeks’ and that’s it.”
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