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Potential liver donors offer to help Inuk woman rejected for transplant

FILE PHOTO - Miriam Saunders, right, mother of Loretta Saunders, along with her daughter Delilah Saunders, walk from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Membertou, N.S. on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

TORONTO - A lawyer for an Inuk activist suffering from acute liver failure says several supporters have volunteered to be her organ donor, but the search for a viable match is being stalled by an Ontario transplant program's six-month sobriety requirement.

According to friends and family, Delilah Saunders was sent to a Toronto hospital in critical condition after having been denied a spot on a transplant waiting list because she hadn't remained sober for the previous six months.

Lawyer Caryma S'ad, who is representing Saunders, said the 26-year-old woman's condition has slightly improved and she seemed more like her usual self on Sunday as she and her family awaited further test results to find out if she is on track to make a recovery or still needs a liver transplant.

"We're still in that wait-and-see game, but by all accounts, she looks stronger and in better spirits," S'ad said. "She's an incredible and resilient person, so if anyone's going to fight through this, it's hopefully going to be Delilah."

After being diagnosed with acute liver failure about a week ago, Saunders was transferred from the Ottawa Hospital to Toronto General Hospital on Thursday to be assessed in a transplant clinic.

S'ad said friends, family and even strangers have offered to donate parts of their liver to Saunders, but none of the candidates have been screened because of an Ontario organ donation agency's policy requiring patients with alcohol-related liver damage to abstain from substance use for a minimum of six months.

"If a transplant is needed, the first step will be determining her eligibility," she said. "(There are) things that could be happening in the background, but she's not on the list yet."

The Trillium Gift of Life Network, which provides organs for transplants in Ontario, says its abstinence policy is used across Canada and the United States.

A spokesperson for Trillium has confirmed the agency plans to launch a pilot project to suspend the six-month requirement and provide transplants to almost 100 patients with alcohol-related liver disease.

Transplant physicians have said there is a critical organ shortage and research has shown that some alcoholics resume drinking after a transplant, leading to liver failure.

S'ad said several potential donors have offered to help Saunders with full awareness of her history of alcohol use, making the "arbitrary" criteria even less applicable.

She said she is prepared to challenge the policy in court if necessary, and while her chief concern is Saunders' well-being, she thinks the case has the potential to help hundreds of patients in similar situations.

"Delilah is an advocate in every other respect, so I think that would please her very much ... if this can have a broader impact," she said.

Saunders' case is the latest in a series of clashes over the transplant policy, and has drawn national attention with demonstrations being held in several Canadian cities.

Amnesty International has thrown its support behind a campaign for Saunders' inclusion on the waiting list, and praised her for her work advocating for the human rights of Innu and other Indigenous women.

Ossie Michelin, a friend of Saunders who helped organize the campaign, said her personal struggles and Indigenous rights advocacy are intimately connected.

"We knew from the very beginning that this is what she'd want us to do. She'd want us to fight," Michelin said. "We just keep thinking about all of the people who do not have a support network like Delilah."

Saunders began advocating for the rights of missing and murdered indigenous women following the murder of her sister Loretta in 2014 in Halifax, and according to Michelin, she started drinking around the same time.

Saunders had been sober for several months before relapsing shortly after giving emotionally charged testimony before the National Inquiry into Murder and Missing Women and Girls at Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton in October, Michelin said.

"Loretta was gone in an instant," he said. "Her mom was saying this time she's losing her child, but this time it's happening in slow motion right in front of her."

—By Adina Bresge in Halifax

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