Recovering alcoholic to launch court fight against rule barring him from life-saving liver transplant

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Cary Gallant’s alcoholic liver disease is so advanced, doctors say the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., man has just a 25-per-cent chance of surviving the next six months.

One thing — an organ transplant — could save his life. But it’s not an option, a long-standing rule stipulating that such patients be sober six months before being considered for the procedure.

So in what appears to be an unprecedented legal tactic, Gallant plans to ask the courts next week for an injunction forcing provincial authorities to place him onto Ontario’s transplant list.

The 45-year-old’s lawyer, Michael Fenrick, said he’s unaware of any other attempt to have a Canadian made eligible for a transplant through judicial order.

The injunction request is part of a constitutional challenge of a policy Fenrick says has no foundation in science, but much to do with the stigma around drinking-related illness.

“This is really his only and best hope, sadly,” the lawyer said. “In order to be listed for a transplant in the first place, you’re likely in a situation where your life is in grave and imminent peril … People in this situation most often can’t wait six months.”

The court application, to be filed early next week, does not ask that Gallant be allowed to jump the queue for an organ, only be assessed under the same criteria as patients with other types of liver disease, said Fenrick.

“He doesn’t (necessarily) get an organ out of this, but at least he gets over that insurmountable hurdle created by the policy,” said the lawyer. “And maybe then his life will be saved.”

Officials with the Trillium Gift of Life Network, the provincial agency that oversees the transplant system in Ontario, were not available for comment Thursday.

Ontario and most other jurisdictions throughout the Western world follow a policy that requires patients suffering from advanced, alcohol-linked liver disease to be abstinent for six months before being considered for a transplant.

The oft-stated rationale is that patients would otherwise be likely to start drinking again after their operation, putting their new organ in danger and potentially squandering a scarce resource.

Transplant administrators also worry that opening the system wider might deter people from agreeing to donate organs.

But Fenrick said a growing body of evidence suggests alcoholic patients are just as likely to do well after a liver transplant as others, and that only a small percentage revert to drinking.

This is really his only and best hope, sadly

A 2013 journal paper by six Canadian experts called the policy discrimination, noting that even those who take up alcohol again consume small amounts that are unlikely to harm their new liver.

Fenrick argues the six-month abstinence rule violates constitutional equality rights — which bar discrimination on the basis of disability — and the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

Gallant — who has struggled with drinking for 20 years — was admitted to hospital in July suffering from jaundice, and eventually diagnosed with alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, alcoholic hepatitis and related conditions.

He has been sober since July 8, but doctors told him early last month that he had a 75-per-cent chance of dying within six months if he doesn’t get a new liver.

His 74-year-old mother, a retired medical secretary who lost another son to bronchial pneumonia in 2013 and looks after a daughter with multiple sclerosis, is now also caring for Gallant at her home.

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