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Widow of alcoholic suing to change policy restricting liver transplants

TORONTO – Debra Selkirk says it was a “numbing” moment when a doctor at Toronto General Hospital told her dying husband that he would not be considered for a liver transplant.

Mark Selkirk was an alcoholic and when he entered TGH in Nov. 2010 suffering from liver failure, he was told a transplant was his only hope for survival.

But it is the policy in Ontario and most western jurisdictions to deny organs to people with alcohol addictions until they can prove they have been sober for six months.  Selkirk had only stopped drinking six weeks earlier.

Debra Selkirk says the doctor was brusque.

“He said because alcoholics just drink again he’ll only waste the organ,” she said. “I offered to donate a piece of mine and he said they won’t even waste the money on the surgery.”

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Within days Mark Selkirk was dead.   Now his widow is launching a constitutional challenge of the policy, effectively suing TGH.

“Alcoholism is a disease, not a character flaw,” she told Global News.

“We don’t judge the drug dealer who comes in all shot up. We don’t judge the driver who goes 130 km an hour across the highway.”

She does not have the money to hire legal counsel, so is acting as her own lawyer.  Selkirk plans to cite a University of Pittsburgh study that showed most alcoholics receiving liver transplants do very well.

But the CEO of the Trillium Gift of Life Foundation, which sets policy on donations, responded that the Pittsburgh study is a minority opinion–the greater weight of clinical evidence points to poor results for alcoholics who have not been sober for six months.

“It’s not judging any individual,” said Ronnie Gavsie. “There’s a singular goal, and that is to use this scarce resource for the best possible, life-saving outcome. Period.”

Gavsie said Trillium Gift of Life, and hospital transplant teams, are constantly reviewing policy, but there are no plans to amend the restrictions on alcoholics.

Debra Selkirk is still pulling together the paperwork for submission to the court, hoping that although her husband is gone she can force a change in policy.

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