I was woken up by a loud knock on my door at around four in the morning.
Honestly, I was furious. Who in the hell would be knocking at my door at this hour?
It didn’t occur to me that there might be something wrong. In general, I don’t think in those terms. I just knew that I had a lot of important things to attend to that day, and I didn’t need this kind of distraction. As I stomped to my entryway, I was ready to lay into whoever woke me up.
But when I opened the door, I paused. It was one of the security guards at my building where I live in Toronto. And I noticed an unmistakable look of concern in his eyes.
“Sir, you gotta get up! We gotta get you to the hospital!”
“Your liver system is shutting down.”
In the months and days leading up to that moment, I’d been to see several different doctors about a variety of ailments, including terrible stomachaches and a constant feeling of fatigue. I’d gotten a few different diagnoses — from kidney stones to ulcers — but no matter what treatment the doctors prescribed, my symptoms always returned.
One of my best assets as a businessman has always been my endurance. I’ve run several large companies in my lifetime, including the Ottawa Senators, and I’ve always excelled by balancing several tasks at once. But what I had noticed around that time is that I was unable to make it through the day without feeling like I needed to pass out several times. I’d be pounding double espressos between calls or meetings and still always feel tired.
For the most part, I tried to ignore what my body was telling me. The people around me every day could tell that something was wrong, but I still maintained this mindset that I was Superman. Everything was fine.
I was finally referred to a great doctor named Florence Wong, who put me through a few tests. She was in Vienna when she reviewed the results, but she immediately had her office put the call in to my residence. The message was clear: I had to go to the hospital right away. Not in a few hours. Not tomorrow. I needed to go NOW, which is what led that security guard to knock on my door in a panic.
He probably saved my life.
When I arrived at Toronto General Hospital, I was met by a doctor named Atul Humar. I still didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on. Of course I was somewhat spooked, but I figured that maybe they just needed me to take some sort of medicine or something. Maybe the security guard was just being dramatic with the liver-system stuff. I still figured that I was going to be fine, and that this was just precautionary.
But that all changed with the first thing Dr. Humar said to me. Each word hitting me like a spear.
“Mr. Melnyk, we’re now desperately trying to find you a bed. We’re going to prepare you for a liver transplant.”
Those were two words that I just never expected to hear. There wasn’t much room for interpretation anymore.
My first thought — my immediate gut reaction — was to dismiss it all. Like, Come on, this has to be some kind of joke.
They put me on a bed and started running me through tests. I was immediately put on antirejection drugs to ready my body for surgery — which might come at any moment. And that’s when everything became very real.
When you need a transplant for a major organ, you’re put on a list. Most people may know that. But the process of finding a donor who matches, performing surgery, hoping that the body accepts the match and praying that it all happens as quickly as possible was something I had no idea about.
That first night in the hospital stretched into days. Those days became weeks. I began to learn more about the situation. I discovered that because my blood type was AB, which accounts for only roughly 2.5% of the population of Canada, the odds of me finding a deceased donor were very slim. Regardless, I had to be ready at all hours in case a match was found, because then there would be a very tiny window of two or three hours for the surgery to be performed. If I missed that window, I’d be sent to the bottom of the waiting list — a list that many people stay on until they die.
A small group of my friends began trying to find me a living donor. I asked them to keep their search as discreet as possible. The last thing I wanted at that point was attention drawn to the situation. I had many reasons, not the least of which was, How do you talk about something like this?
During all this, there was one thought that scared me more than any other. It wasn’t related to surgery or the likelihood that we wouldn’t be able to locate a match. It wasn’t about me at all.
I have two daughters, Olivia, who was 12 at the time, and Anna, who was 16.
They are the most important people in my life — hands down, no question. Everything I do is for them.
And the thought that truly terrified me, as I’m sure it would any parent, was explaining to them what was going on.
How was I going to tell my little girls that their father might die?
Even though I’ve made my living as a businessman, I’ve always been a hockey player at heart.
My dad used to build a rink in our backyard in Toronto every winter. On weekends, we’d be on that ice from 7 a.m. until 15 minutes before Hockey Night in Canada started. When it wasn’t cold enough to skate, I played road hockey just about every free moment I had. That’s how it was pretty much all the way through high school. Like many Canadians, a lot of my best memories from childhood involve me holding a hockey stick.
My father passed away when I was 17, which was an event that changed the course of my life. He was my hero. Losing him suddenly made me realize that I needed to really take ownership of my life, because you never know what curveballs it will throw at you. That mentality has pushed me forward my entire adult life, and drove me to accomplish pretty much everything I’ve ever done professionally.
But just when I thought I had everything figured out — 40 years after my father’s death — security came knocking on my door and suddenly my life reached another turning point. But there was no taking charge of this situation. My own body was turning on itself.
The worst part of the whole experience wasn’t the needles, or the drugs, or even the daily feeling that I was getting weaker.
No, the worst part, hands down, was the waiting.
Waiting without any clear indication of why this happened to you. Waiting with no idea of how much longer you have to live. And waiting without being able to say goodbye to those you love because you’re supposed to stay positive and hold on to the hope that things are going to somehow work out.
For several months I lived at the hospital, following the same daily routine.
Every morning, at 7 a.m., they’d wake me up.
It didn’t matter what condition I was in, or how long I’d been up the night before throwing up — 7 a.m. was always when a nurse would shake me awake.
From there, they’d take my temperature, look me over and then ask me to pick up my hands to see if I was shaking, which was a sign I was deteriorating.
The next part of the routine was the most difficult by far. It involved me asking the same question. It was a question I had asked from the first day I was in the hospital until long past the point when I had come to terms with the fact that I was dying.
I’d only get my hopes up for half a second. That was all I’d allow myself. Eventually I figured out that if there was no response right away, the answer was no.
“Sorry, Eugene, it’s not your day.”
That’s what I got back. Every damn day.
I began to resent the millisecond after I had asked the question, when I let myself feel hope. It just became another source of pain. When you’re in that situation, your life becomes like the sand in an hourglass. You have this sense that your time is dwindling. Only you don’t know how much sand is left.
When my ex-wife brought my daughters to visit me at the hospital for the first time, she and I planned to keep the details of my situation under wraps. I thought telling them that I needed a liver transplant would sound like something out of science fiction. I was just going to leave it at, “Dad’s sick right now but he’s working to get better soon.” But my daughters aren’t stupid. When they were walking through the hospital, one of them said to their mother, “Mom, we’re going the wrong way. This is something called the transplant ward.”
At that point, we had to explain the severity of what was going on. I underestimated how my kids would take the news. They became nurturers. Along with my ex-wife, they visited me in the hospital every day. They saw me in this feeble state and wanted to do anything they could to help.
As my immune system got weaker, I became susceptible to other illnesses. The antirejection drugs I was on began to take a toll. I contracted a bacterial virus that very well could have killed me just from the air in the hospital. My doctor later told me that there were many nights when he left the hospital that he didn’t think I would still be there when he returned the next day.
As weeks stretched into months, it became clear that the private search for a match wasn’t going to yield anything.
At that point, I had only a matter of days left, which is when my associates told me that my options were to either make a public plea for a living donor or die. Receiving a donation from a living person is possible, but it is asking a lot of the donor. They not only undergo surgery to have part of their liver removed, but then also spend several months in recovery as their liver grows back to normal size. To me, it didn’t seem worth it to ask. I’d kept everything private up to that point, and I didn’t want to court sympathy. The whole process had taken such a toll on me physically and emotionally that it had sapped me of my will to live.
So I prepared to die.
I began making arrangements to sort out my estate with my lawyer. And for the first time, I thought about how I was going to say goodbye to the people I loved. All of this was taking place at the same time that my beloved Ottawa Senators went on a wild winning streak to make the playoffs in 2015. Did I care? Absolutely. Could I stay up to watch the games? No. All my focus was on getting a liver.
If all the decisions had been left up to me, I probably would have died shortly after that.
But my life wasn’t just about me.
As I said before, my kids are smart. They knew what was going on, and they knew that their dad was ready to quit. And my daughters, Anna and little Olivia, weren’t going to accept that.
When they found out I wasn’t going to go public searching for a donor, they did something that made me very proud. They took control of the situation.
I’ll never forget lying there while a 12-year-old girl was admonishing me. Olivia said, with tears in her eyes, “Dad, you can refuse to ask for help and die, or you can try to live and raise us. You need to choose to be our dad.”
She was right.
I could quit on myself. I could admit that it was never going to be my day. But it wasn’t fair to force my daughters to grow up without a father the same way I had. Not when there was another option available.
So that Thursday, I made a public plea for a liver donation.
The following Monday, I woke up expecting the usual routine.
But when Dr. Humar came in, something was different. He seemed upbeat.
“Eugene, today’s your day.”
Tears immediately filled my eyes.
We had put out the call through the Ottawa Senators, and the hockey community responded in remarkable fashion. It was overwhelming, truly — more than 2,000 people responded. Of those, the hospital narrowed down one match. I felt many emotions, but the most prominent was this great sense of relief. There’s no way to truly describe it.
Before they wheeled me to the operating room I hugged my ex-wife and kissed my children. I told them that I was going to see them on the other side. I then said a quiet prayer….
The room where they operated on me looked like a spaceship. Bright lights everywhere, with so many high-tech looking bells and whistles. Before the operation began, I asked if I could take a quick walk around the room. I spent a couple of minutes wandering and reflecting. I said another little prayer to myself. And then I saw my surgeon. It struck me how focused he was. It reminded me of when my hockey players are in the zone before a game. It reassured me in a way.
Before the surgery I’d made a bet — one dollar, to be exact — with the anesthesiologist about how long I’d be able to stay awake during the countdown from 10 after they administered the anesthesia. He placed the over-under at seven. I felt like I could make it to at least six. They hooked up my IV, and I began counting.
He said, “Goodnight, sweetheart.”
And I was out.
The first thing I recall after waking up was how thirsty I was. My entire mouth felt like sandpaper. I was hurting. I dropped roughly 50 pounds off of 220 during the operation, and I didn’t know whether my body would accept the liver — but I was alive.
When I was wheeled out and saw my little girls, I knew that I’d made the right decision. And pretty much immediately, I also had a different sense of purpose to my life.
The first thing I noticed that returned to me was a sense of clarity. That was something I don’t think I fully realized that I’d lost. As I’d gotten progressively more sick, my mind had gradually faded until I was a shell of myself.
The decision to seek out a donor was difficult, and to some, controversial because of my standing as a public figure. But my experience gave me a unique view of a situation that not many people are familiar with — I certainly wasn’t before I went through it. And now that I had been given a second chance, I felt indebted. The feeling that I had to do something to give back was tremendous.
I decided to focus my energy on the very worst part of the transplant process: the wait.
In Canada alone, there are more than 4,500 people on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant. In the States, that number is much higher. Far too many people die waiting for their day to come.
What this experience taught me more than anything was the capacity people have for compassion, even for those they don’t know. When I had put out my call for a donation, I was overwhelmed by the response, so I thought about how I could spread awareness about the process.
So I decided to use all of my resources and experiences in business and marketing to start a charitable foundation, The Organ Project, that is focused on getting the word out. My goal is for every person in North America to not only know about the process of organ donation, but to also have a clear plan in place for what will happen to their vital organs once they pass, as well as a full understanding of how to register for live donation. What many people don’t realize is that your liver grows back to its regular size 90 days after you make a live donation. I want that fact to be as common knowledge as how to donate blood.
We’re in the process of producing a marketing campaign that will release ads across all platforms to spread awareness. Our plan for the first year is to concentrate on Ontario and perfect our strategy, and then, in the second year, to expand across Canada. A year later, I want to plan for a launch in the U.S. in key states. The following year, I want to roll it out to even more.
That might seem ambitious, but so did the task of creating awareness for seat belts and drunk driving. The issue of organ donation is similar because anyone can be a victim. We’re all at risk. So everyone has a mutual interest in finding a solution. My goal is simply to illuminate this fact on a broader scale.
I feel like I was given this second chance for reason. This is the best way I know how to use it for some good.
I often think about the person who donated part of their liver to me. They requested to remain anonymous and I have always respected that. The only thing I wish for them is that somehow, someplace, sometime, someone will give them the same level of blessing they gave me. That’s all I can hope for.
Every day I wake up in the morning and I thank God for creating a person who was willing to do something like that. And then I think about all the work I have left to do.
They did this completely selfless thing, and asked for nothing in return.
Well, only one thing.
Before the surgery, I was informed that my donor had told the surgeon to send me one (remarkably Canadian) message: “I’d like to remain anonymous, but please tell Eugene I want him to bring a Stanley Cup to Ottawa.”
To whoever saved my life, I just want you know that your kindness has touched me in a way that I feel I can never repay.
But I’m working on it.
You can learn more about The Organ Project by visiting TheOrganProject.net.