They call themselves the Chopped Livers.
“It’s an informal group, but there’s a big barrier to entry,” Heather Badenoch says with a laugh.
Like her, all the members of Chopped Livers have made a non-directed living liver donation – meaning they have donated a chunk of their liver to a stranger. There have only been about 60 non-directed living donors since the program began in Canada 15 years ago.
Are they crazy?
“We get asked that all the time, variations on: ‘Why would you do this?’” Ms. Badenoch says. “But there’s an emotional joy to saving a life that can’t be described in words.”
Last year in Canada, there were 762 deceased organ donors. There were another 555 living donors, people who gave a kidney or a part of their liver, and almost all of them gave to a family member or friend.
Only a handful of people give a part of their liver to a stranger. (When a part of the liver is removed, it can regenerate to its original size. Living donors can also give a kidney – because they have two – and that is far more common.)
“I don’t think there’s a way to describe how selfless these people are,” says Chantal Wiggins, the living liver donor co-ordinator at University Health Network in Toronto. “What they do goes well beyond kindness and generosity. It’s beautiful and inspiring.”
According to a study published in the Journal of Hepatology, they all have similar drive: “Saving a life, helping others, generativity, reciprocity for past generosity were motivators.”
Or, as Ms. Wiggins says: “To them, it’s an obvious thing to do. If they can help someone else live, why wouldn’t they?”
Bob Barry, a retired federal civil servant from Carleton Place, Ont., received a liver transplant from an anonymous living donor in October. Suffering from non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), he had been on the transplant waiting list since 2014 with only months to live. “I had my doubts it would work out, but I won the lottery,” Mr. Barry says.
His family created a Facebook page to appeal for a donor and the story was picked up by the local newspaper then national media.
Mr. Barry doesn’t know the donor but can’t even think about him without tearing up. “Without that transplant, without that gift, I was a dead man. How can you ever thank someone for that?”
Almost all the donors interviewed for this piece say the idea never crossed their mind until they saw a public appeal.
Ms. Badenoch saw a newspaper story in 2016 about a young girl who needed a liver and made the decision immediately. But, in addition to extensive physical and psychological evaluations, there were stops and starts.
The girl found another donor but Ms. Badenoch asked to stay on the list.
In 2018, there was another match, and Ms. Badenoch donated 22 per cent of the left lobe of her liver. “I have no idea who the recipient was – other than it was a child – and that’s fine,” she says.
Given the dire shortage of organs for transplant – there are 3,150 Canadians waiting for a kidney and 527 waiting for a liver – public appeals are on the rise.
That makes many clinicians and ethicists uncomfortable. They worry that desperately needed organs will go to those with compelling stories rather than those most in need, as illustrated by the case of Eugene Melnyk, the owner of the Ottawa Senators, who received a liver transplant in 2015 after a public appeal.
More than 500 people offered to donate a part of their liver to Mr. Melnyk and 20 of them actually continued with the process to become living donors.
(However, only about one-third of people who express interest actually donate. Most are excluded for medical reasons.)
In Canada, it is illegal to pay for organs, tissues or blood. However, donors can have some of their expenses reimbursed, such as travel and accommodation, up to about $5,000.
Kelly Bryan, a paramedic in Peterborough, Ont., decided to become a non-directed living liver donor after seeing a Facebook plea. She said the personal cost never crossed her mind, and initially planned to use her holiday time for recovery. But it turned out she was eligible for short-term disability insurance payments, which was fortuitous.
The transplant surgery itself lasted eight hours (70 per cent of her right lobe was removed), followed by a week in hospital and a several weeks of recovery.
But, after her surgery, Ms. Bryan suffered a bowel obstruction, which required a second surgery. It was three months before she could return to work.
Ms. Bryan is unusual in that she met her recipient, Muhammad Khan. “That was kind of weird, but we’ve become like family now.”
The two were part of a medical first – a paired liver donation, meaning that Ms. Bryan donated a part of her liver to Mr. Khan and his spouse, Hina (whose blood type was not compatible to her husband’s), gave a part of her liver to another person.
Members of the Chopped Livers say they hope, above all, that their gestures will inspire others.
Ms. Badenoch, who has mentored many other potential donors, says: “I never say ‘do it’ or ‘don’t do it.’ I say ‘it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’”
Ms. Bryan has a similar philosophy: “In my mind, I’m repaying other acts of kindness in my life. And we could all use a little kindness.”