Alberta’s healthcare system could become very attractive to people from other provinces after recent changes to the organ donation system.
The province has quietly introduced new rules related to organ donation – it now allows anonymous, live liver donations, meaning Albertans can anonymously donate a portion of their liver to a stranger.
The changes are good news for Eric Fier of Vancouver. The B.C. man was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) in the fall of 2014.
The autoimmune disease causes scarring of the liver and bile ducts, and Fier’s only hope is a liver transplant.
“At any given point, I can get an infection. I can be in the hospital and the ICU within 24 to 48 hours,” he said.
Fier has been in the hospital five times since his diagnosis and had a near brush with death in March 2015 after complications arose with his blood chemistry.
None of Fier’s four children qualify to be donors. But Fier is not on B.C.’s transplant list – he placed himself on Alberta’s organ donor list.
“There are people who want to donate, that see it as a humanitarian network, but they’re stuck in a system that doesn’t allow anonymous donations.”
Alberta is following Ontario to become only the second province to allow anonymous, live liver donations and the move is being applauded by advocates of Albertans with liver problems.
“We’re looking for possible solutions to drive up organ donation rates, so making it possible for anonymous donors is one solution,” said Melanie Kearns, the vice-president of marketing and communications with the Canadian Liver Foundation.
The doctor who performed the first-ever liver transplant in Alberta in 1989, says demand for the organs simply won’t let up.
“We’ll usually have over 100 people on our waitlist at any one time and unfortunately, we’ll have 20 or 25 of those people each year who don’t survive long enough to get transplanted,” said Dr. Norman Kneteman, the director of transplantation for AHS Northern Alberta. “When we think about some of these people willing to give that gift to save the life of a complete stranger, I think it really puts it in perspective.”
Doctors have told Fier he will be lucky if he lives until March – he is counting on finding a matching donor in Alberta.
His sons have created a Facebook page called “Team Eric No Fear” to help him find a compatible donor.
“We’re hoping someone will step forward and help us out through this whole process and provide a liver for our father,” said Fier’s son, Nathan.
Maeghan Toews, a research associate at the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, said the changes to Alberta’s liver donation system could open the door to more public solicitation of organs through Facebook, Twitter or crowdfunding websites. She said that raises some ethical issues.
“On the one hand, there are concerns about fairness and equity in our allocation system that’s also balanced against the potential publicity and public awareness that might be brought by stories of this nature,” she said.
According to Toews, the issue is becoming more prevalent and the medical community is grappling with how to respond.
“Given the legal implications with people’s freedom of expression, to be able to express their need for an organ through social media or other popular media, how that would actually be regulated in an actual, practical sense raises some very unique challenges,” she said.
Allowing anonymous living donors to give away part of their organs has not been without controversy in Ontario.
In 2015, the owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey team made a public plea for a liver donation. Eugene Melnyk received a transplant a short time later and some openly wondered whether his plea was ethical, given that others were just as deserving of a transplant.
However, a handful of Melnyk’s donor candidates who were not selected committed to donating to someone else.
Data from Alberta Health Services show there were 83 liver transplants performed in Edmonton last year: 22 came from living donors while two came from anonymous, live donors.
During that same time period in B.C., there were three living donor transplants, all of whom were from a relative or close friend.
With files from Tom Vernon