With a failing liver and less than a year to live, Toronto writer Tom Walmsley was resigned to death. He hoped, at most, to write two more books and get his affairs in order.
Enter fellow playwright Michael Healey. He scarcely knew Mr. Walmsley, except through his work, but he offered to undergo surgery and donate part of his own liver, in the hope of saving Mr. Walmsley's life.
"It was a moral act on his part," Mr. Walmsley said. "We might have been introduced on an opening night [in the theatre] but we'd never so much as sat down for a cup of coffee."
The surgical transplant, in which 60 per cent of Mr. Healey's liver was removed and implanted into Mr. Walmsley's body, took place three weeks ago, in an eight-hour procedure at Toronto General Hospital.
Both men are now said to be making good recoveries.
"We had coffee together last week. We were like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in their last movie, doddering down the street," Mr. Walmsley said.
His plight came to public attention when his new novel, Kid Stuff, appeared five months ago.
Mr. Walmsley, 55, was already so debilitated that he often lacked the strength to leave his apartment. With an average three-year wait in Ontario for the few livers that become available through bequest or accidental death, he had decided there was no realistic chance of receiving a complete transplant.
Early in the new year, however, he received an e-mail from Mr. Healey. Having heard about Mr. Walmsley's plight, he volunteered a partial liver transplant. When such an operation succeeds, both donor and victim have a partial liver, which can then regenerate itself in the months that follow. Both parties must undergo intensive therapy during this period, and the surgery itself is not without risk.
"What astonished me is that I barely knew Michael," Mr. Walmsley said. After receiving the e-mail offer, the two men met to discuss the situation. "Of course, I wanted to know why he wanted to do it. There was nothing in it for him except a scar and a baby-sized liver. "
Mr. Healey told Mr. Walmsley, who is also the author of eight plays, that he wanted to set an example for his teenaged daughter "of how people should treat each other," Mr. Walmsley recalls.
To be approved, Mr. Healey first had to undergo a series of tests to determine if he was qualified .
"My hopes were never high," said Mr. Walmsley, noting that his own sister, who had volunteered, had been rejected because her liver was not physiologically compatible.
"So there was no reason to think this was going to work."
Mr. Healey was given the green light only after a second magnetic resonance scan the day before the scheduled surgery. Recalls Mr. Walmsley: "He called me and said: 'We're on, dude.' "
Mr. Healey, 40, is one of Canada's most successful playwrights. His popular 1999 hit, The Drawer Boy, won a Governor-General's Award for drama and has been mounted by theatres around the world. This winter, Toronto's Tarragon Theatre staged his latest play, Rune Arlidge. He lives with actor-director Kate Lynch and has one daughter from a previous relationship. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Mr. Walmsley's liver troubles started 20 years ago when he was a heroin addict. At that time, he gave up both drugs and alcohol, and for a time studied to be an Anglican priest. But the slow deterioration of his liver continued, and became critical about a year ago.
"The whole world has changed for me now," said Mr. Walmsley, who's now on a fierce regimen of medication to prevent rejection of the new tissue. "A couple of months ago, I had no expectations except to end up in the hospital as a cadaver."
The writer decided to speak publicly about the transplant in order to make people aware that partial liver donation can save lives. "In Canada, people don't know that the liver regenerates. Other countries are far ahead of us in promoting public knowledge about this."