When Julia King, a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital, decided to anonymously donate part of her liver to a sick child, she was surprised to learn she’d have to travel to Ontario to do it.
The 23-year-old had assumed there was a program in B.C. that would allow her to donate to a local child.
“I know if that was one of my family members or friends, I would want to help them with a live donation. And in B.C., I was told, that isn’t an option,” said King.
B.C. Transplant says living liver transplant surgeries were performed at Vancouver General Hospital between 2001 and 2015.
But after that, the number of deceased organ donors increased significantly, meaning there was a greater availability of deceased donor livers for B.C. patients.
The living liver transplant program was shelved, but B.C. still has a living transplant program for kidney donations.
A live-donor liver transplant is when a surgeon removes a portion of the liver from a healthy person and places it into someone whose liver is failing. The vital organ has the ability to grow back.
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there are just under 500 people in Canada who are waiting for a liver transplant, with 36 of those patients in B.C.
For some of those who are waiting, they will either die or withdraw from the wait list before ever receiving the transplant they need. Last year, four adults in B.C. died and 24 withdrew from the wait list before receiving a new liver.
Only 2 living liver transplant programs in Canada
“Every year, we lose about 25 to 30 per cent of patients who are waiting for a liver transplant,” said Dr. Nazia Selzner.
Selzner, who is the medical director for the University Health Network’s Living Liver Donor program in Toronto, says living donations are a valuable way to help patients receive an organ donation faster and on average, patients of living donors will have a five per cent better long-term survival rate than recipients of deceased donor livers.
“There is a very short period between when the organs become available, to the time when it is actually transplanted. It goes from one operating room to the other, so the preservation of the organs is also much shorter, rather than waiting for an organ that is being transported from a donor centre,” Selzner said.
“All this allows a much better success rate of transplantation.”
There are only two living transplant programs in Canada where living liver transplant surgeries can be performed: one in Toronto and the other in Edmonton. Selzner would like to see far more.
“There is a need to have a living liver donor program in almost all transplant centres across Canada,” she said.
B.C. Transplant says it had planned to restart the living liver transplant program in 2020, but due to COVID-19, the required clinician training from other transplant sites across Canada could not take place. They hope to resume the program over the next two years.
‘It’s great knowing that you’re able to help’
After her initial disappointment that she couldn’t go through with a living liver donation in her home province, King travelled to Toronto in August for the transplant surgery.
“It’s great knowing that you’re able to help someone in that way … it’s something that can help change somebody’s quality of life or help save their life..and then I go back to my normal life after I heal,” said King.
King says she was at Toronto General Hospital for about five days for the surgery, and is almost fully recovered. She hopes by sharing her experience as a living donor, more people will know it is an option.
“When I told people I was going to do a live liver donation, a lot of people did not know you could do that.”