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Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk leads new push for organ donors

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk raised eyebrows when he made a public appeal for a liver tissue transplant. He founded the Organ Project, to end the organ transplant waiting list.

FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

The knock came at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Eugene Melnyk, made rich by pharmaceuticals, made famous by hockey, was in a foul mood. He was at his Toronto residence and hadn't slept well the night before and just wanted a good night's sleep before flying to back to Barbados, where he lives most of the year.

It was the spring of 2015 and there had been some concern about his health. He had recently been to see an internal specialist and she had ordered up some tests but the results had not come in before the doctor's planned trip to Europe.

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Now there was this annoying call from the door – was he awake? – and an employee was telling him they had to go, immediately, to the hospital. The specialist had called from Vienna, where she had received the results of the medical tests. There was no time to spare.

"I tell you," says the 57-year-old owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey club, "that was a wake-up call."

He had a quick shower and hurried to Toronto General Hospital, where a room was being prepared for him. "I figured 'that spells trouble,'" he recalls, but he was either too tired or too confused to know exactly how deep the trouble was that he was in.

Dr. Atul Humar, director of the University Health Network's multiorgan transplant program, informed the patient that his liver was shot.

"I told them just to give me some pills," Mr. Melnyk remembers. "I had to go to Barbados."

He was told he wouldn't be going anywhere but the hospital bed that was being prepared. He was told his blood type was relatively rare but a suitable match might be found. Living donors can give a portion of their healthy liver, as the organ is capable of regenerating itself.

When no relative was deemed suitable, he was then told he would have to hope an organ compatible with his blood type came along. His name would be put on the list for potential transplant. If a matching organ was found and, if he had risen to the top of the list, he would get one. If not, he would die.

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This made no sense to the patient. A wealthy man used to getting what he wants and when he wants it, the notion of waiting in line seemed preposterous. "You want to go to the theatre and the tickets are sold out," he says, "what do you do? You go find a scalper and you get your ticket."

Days passed with no news. Each morning they checked him for alertness – what day is it? who is the prime minister? turn your hands up and down – and nothing happened: "Day after day they told me 'It's not your day.'"

"Every time I went home," Dr. Humar would say later, "I wasn't sure he would survive until the next morning."

Family and friends pushed for a public plea but Mr. Melnyk refused – until his daughters, Anna, then 16, and Olivia, then 12, came and told them they knew they were going to lose him if something wasn't done. "If you get the transplant," they told him, "you'll live."

"They sent the nukes in," he says. And it worked.

The Ottawa Senators called a press conference and made the plea, upsetting some who saw it as a rich person jumping the queue – exactly as Mr. Melnyk had feared.

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About 2,000 Canadians responded. About 200 were tested, a number reduced to 20 as suitable. One was selected and an 11-hour medical procedure proved successful.

"I was that close," says Mr. Melnyk. Had the anonymous donor not stepped up, he knows he would not be here today.

"Being in hospital is like being in jail," he says. "You have time to think."

And what he thought was that something serious has to be done in this country to raise the public awareness of organ transplants. The small backlash against the public appeal had, ironically, created a healthy discussion on how, exactly, someone gets a transplant and how, in this case, one could volunteer to help.

Last July, Mr. Melnyk founded the Organ Project (organproject.net), its mission "to save lives by ending the organ transplant waiting list."

On Friday, on the eve of Organ Donation Awareness Month, the inaugural Gala will take place at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York. With single tickets going at $1,500 and tables of 10 for $15,000, the event is already sold out and may raise as much as $2-million for the charity. A large number of corporate sponsors – including the National Hockey League, Rogers, Molson Coors, Canadian Tire, various law firms and The Globe and Mail – have joined the project.

The highlight of the evening will be a performance by seven-time Grammy Award winner Carrie Underwood, the wife of former Ottawa Senator Mike Fisher. In early 2011, when the Senators set out to rebuild their team, Mr. Fisher was traded to the Nashville Predators for a young prospect and a draft pick – the deal struck with Nashville so that he could play where his wife was then living. Last September, Mr. Fisher was named captain of the Predators.

"If I can ever do anything for you," Ms. Underwood told Mr. Melnyk at the time.

Six years later, he called in that promise – the country star agreeing to headline the gala for free.

There will also be a preview of three television commercials intended to raise public awareness and initiate action in support of organ donation.

The project intends to work with the various levels of government as well as organ transplantation agencies to make registering more efficient and accessible.

At the time of the project's founding, more than 4,500 Canadians were awaiting organ transplants. As well, polls have found that while 90 per cent of Canadians says they support organ donation, less than 20 per cent have actually done something about it.

The Organ Project will launch campaigns to raise awareness through various social media as well as traditional advertising and intends to work with various sports and entertainment entities and personalities to reach a wider audience.

Above all else, the hope is to start conversations among family members, who have the ultimate decision when it comes to organ donations. "By having the conversation years in advance," the project says, "it helps normalize organ donation and make it a natural part of the dying process."

The ultimate goal is the complete elimination of the waiting list, the project says. "This isn't like finding a cure for a disease. Practical policies and engaging awareness campaigns can and will save lives."

Adds Mr. Melnyk: "As a caring and compassionate society, we can and must do better."

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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