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Danielle Smith: Alberta’s liver transplant protocol needs a re-write

Patient can't get a liver transplant unless he goes to rehab.
Patient can't get a liver transplant unless he goes to rehab.

Eric Whitbread is being denied a liver transplant for the flimsiest of reasons and unnecessary bureaucracy is to blame.

I’m trying to think of another illness where you can be denied treatment because of lifestyle choices and I’m drawing a blank.

Can you seriously imagine the government saying they wouldn’t give knee or hip replacements to anyone who was obese? Or they wouldn’t do heart surgery on a person who had a high-fat diet? Or no cancer treatment if you’re a smoker?

Let’s face it. We’re all going to get sick and most of us are going to get sick because of poor lifestyle choices. We all know how to take care of ourselves: eat lots of vegetables, exercise three times a week, don’t overindulge in sugar, alcohol, tobacco. But, very few people consistently do it. It’s why we have a crisis of obesity and booming rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

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So let’s not be too judgmental when we consider Eric Whitbread’s case.

LISTEN: Aimee Whitbread explains why they are being told her husband, Eric, can’t get a liver transplant

Last August, at age 40, Whitbread was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. He’d been a heavy drinker for three years after his business failed, but as soon as he was diagnosed he stopped drinking – cold turkey.

The fact that he was initially diagnosed with cirrhosis due to fatty liver disease – not drinking – and that he is so young lends credence to his wife Aimee’s contention that there were other contributing factors. The other potential contributing factors: heavy use of acetaminophen in his younger years for a back problem; side effects of the bi-polar medication he takes; family history; poor diet.

What stands out to me is the moment he found out about the disease, he stopped drinking and has now been off alcohol for six months. He started eating better and got a new lease on life. He has family and friends who are prepared to make a live donation (because the liver regenerates you can do that). He has two young kids and he wants to live.

But he told me that now the bureaucrats at Alberta Health Services (AHS) are standing in the way.

Saskatchewan doesn’t do transplants so Whitbread has to rely on Alberta to make a decision that will save him. But AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson said the rules state that someone has to be abstinent for six months and go through rehab treatment before they are eligible. Whitbread is more than happy to do that from his hospital bed in an ICU, but that’s not allowed.

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He was just told a few days ago he needs to go to a rehab centre for three weeks to qualify under AHS rules. If he leaves the hospital he will die. If he doesn’t go to the rehab centre he won’t get the transplant and he will die. Talk about a no-win situation.

LISTEN: Rob Breakenridge talks to Debra Selkirk of the Selkirk Liver Society

“It is important to remember that there are a limited number of organs available across Canada for transplantation,” Williamson told the Calgary Herald. Talk about missing the point.

Whitbread’s friends and family are prepared to donate a portion of their liver to keep him alive; they aren’t donating to a general organ pool so the bureaucrats can give it to someone they think is more deserving. If he doesn’t get it, no one will. No one else is going to be denied access if Whitbread gets his transplant.

Since Whitbread has been clean for six months as of Feb. 7, he can qualify for a transplant in Ontario and his family is hoping to have him accepted in the transplant program there. The better option would be for Alberta Health Services to revise its protocol and let Whitbread get the surgery without jumping through any more unnecessary hoops. Time is running out.