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Melnyk, the owner of the Ottawa Senators, is recovering from liver transplant surgery last May, after a highly publicized plea for a live donor that within days yielded more than 500 volunteers and saved his life.
Ezra’s only hope to beat a rare form of liver cancer is a live donor transplant, but he has yet to find anyone — even among family and friends — who can or will donate part of their liver to save his life.
“You wake up and it’s sunny and you think, ‘beautiful.’ And then you remember, oh yeah, I have cancer. And unless I get another liver, I’m done.
The University Health Network, which performs about 140 liver transplants annually, including Melnyk’s, says the one-year survival rate is between 80 to 90 per cent, while donors can resume normal activities after a recovery period of several months.
Dr. Udo Schuklenk, Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics at Queen’s University, said long lists for donated organs, whether they’re from a live donor or harvested from a deceased person, are a symptom of the inadequacies of the system.
“The current system is terrible,” said Schuklenk, noting that some people end up waiting many years before they get to the top of the list, and die before they get there.
“You have to opt in to donate an organ, instead of a system where your organs are automatically donated if you’re deceased. That creates huge waiting lists when so many more organs could be available.”
But he stressed that the people who came forward to donate to Melnyk “did not disadvantage anyone else. Your gut response is it’s horrible and unfair, but we should not assume it was a matter of money.
Ezra went to hospital last August after several days of abdominal pain, where tests showed kidney stones, which he’d had before. He and his partner of 14 years, Gail Levine, were relieved and high-fived at the news; though excruciatingly painful, it was manageable.
Hospital staff found tumours and diagnosed him with primary liver cancer. He recalls the flash of heat in his neck that spread down his back when a doctor gave him the news, how he’d never felt anything like it.
Some of the eight tumours were big enough to disqualify him from the list for a deceased donor organ. A punishing round of chemotherapy began to shrink the tumours and went on for nearly two months. He lost 40 pounds and thought it would kill him.
A few shrunk but others got bigger, which limits his options to a living donor. He got tough and started thinking positively, to persuade himself that someone would step up and donate part of their liver, which can grow back in as little as six weeks.
The largest of the tumours grew from 6.5 to 8.5 centimetres in 60 days, he said. So far, the cancer hasn’t spread from his liver, but he knows that the longer he waits, the likelier it is to spread to other organs and kill him.
He’s on a live donor list, but because his health is stable for now, his situation is not yet desperate enough for him to occupy a priority position.
“Asking friends and family can feel like emotional blackmail, so it creates a reluctance with a lot of people.”
Their lives converge at Woodbine racetrack, where Melnyk’s huge stable of expensive thoroughbreds, some worth millions, compete with lesser nags owned by ordinary people, including a few of Ezra’s buddies. Melnyk occasionally flies in from his home in Barbados to watch them; when he appears at one of the trackside bars, it causes a buzz.
Ezra has been involved in racing since childhood, when he hawked copies of the Daily Racing Form to customers on their way into the track. He had his photo taken in the winner’s circle last Friday, when a friend’s horse won.
It’s just about the only place where he can escape the angel of death that rides his horse.
“The doctor said, ‘Live your life as if you don’t have cancer.’ I can do that here. For me, it’s serenity.”
Writer Jack Lakey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org