Its social media presence has dried up, its phone number is out of service and its annual gala didn’t happen in 2019. But Eugene Melnyk insists his charity, The Organ Project, is still alive, and is refocusing its efforts for a relaunch next year.
The Ottawa Senators owner launched The Organ Project in 2017, after undergoing a successful liver transplant that followed a public appeal for a living donor, who remains anonymous.
The idea behind the charity was to raise awareness for organ donation and encourage people to sign their organ donor cards. But according to its former chief operating officer, Catherine Shaw, measuring the charity’s success proved difficult because of the way online registration works in Ontario.
In a written message to CBC News, Shaw acknowledged the charity’s operations are “on hold.”
“Rather than move forward with initiatives that could not be properly measured, we chose to put them on hold until we found a way to make them as effective as possible,” Shaw said.
Trillium network withheld data, Melnyk claims
According to Melnyk, The Organ Project helped boost organ donor registration. But he said Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN), the provincial government agency that delivers and coordinates organ and tissue donation in Ontario, has been less than forthcoming with any information that would give credit to his charity.
“Despite enormous efforts to attempt to get confirmations from Trillium that we deserved credit for the spike in organ donation registration, we were disallowed that information,” Melnyk wrote in an email to CBC News.
“We felt that there was therefore no other choice other than to suspend efforts for mass registration.”
Trillium denies it withheld information from The Organ Project.
“Since The Organ Project’s inception, TGLN worked cooperatively with the organisation to provide all available registration statistics and other relevant data in Ontario to help advance the organisations’ collective mission,” the agency wrote in an email to CBC.
Small tweak would have solved problem
TGLN said a small tweak to The Organ Project’s website would have solved the problem.
“The Organ Project’s website directs visitors to Ontario’s online registration site, which is not owned or managed by TGLN. Therefore it was not possible for TGLN to provide metrics on web traffic generated from The Organ Project’s website directly to the registration portal.”
In other words, had The Organ Project’s “register now” button linked to beadonor.ca, the information would have been available to the charity.
Melnyk said The Organ Project is planning to refocus on assisting individuals with finding living donors through social media, starting next year. He said the results will be “directly and efficiently” measured.
‘No financial difficulty’
Asked about his current financial situation, in light of multiple examples of civil litigation against him, Melnyk said: “I can assure you that I am very happy with my state of financial affairs and no, there is no financial difficulty.”
In a subsequent email, Melnyk added: “I never speak about my wealth or net worth to anyone. To try to somehow paint a picture (as some reporters try) that there are any financial challenges is simply not true.”
Melnyk is being sued by both an aviation company and a U.S casino. He’s also involved in a reciprocal lawsuit with his former partners in a failed bid to build an NHL arena on LeBreton Flats.
Melnyk told CBC that as a policy he doesn’t comment on litigation.
Charity to relaunch next year
Melnyk is promising to resurrect The Organ Project in April 2020 — the next Transplant Month — as a free service to help gravely ill people find their own living donors. It will be modelled after the liver transplant program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which provides transplants for patients that other medical centres deem too high-risk or unfit for the operation.
“In this scenario we have a tangible, measurable impact on the transplant community,” Melnyk said.
The Senators owner said he’s “eternally grateful” to the anonymous living donor who came forward to save his life, and believes it’s the duty of all organ transplant recipients to spread the word.
When Melnyk’s family, friends and Senators staff launched the appeal to find a living liver donor in 2015, some felt he was using his public profile to jump the queue for transplants. But some believe it may have helped the cause.
Appeal for living donors
According to recent liver donor and transplant advocate Heather Badenoch, there aren’t enough deceased donors for everyone on the waiting list. She believes Melnyk’s new focus could help generate more living donors and help close the gap.
“People on the transplant list are waiting for a deceased donor. There’s no waiting list, or queue, to get a living donor,” Badenoch said. “If someone can find themselves a living liver donor, then they get off the list for a deceased donor and everyone behind them moves up by one. This is the opposite of jumping the queue.”
I want to, and am, giving back.– Eugene Melnyk
She said encouraging living donation helps generate multiple matches.
“I responded to a little girl’s public appeal, she got a different donor, and I stayed in the process to give to another child.”
Ninety-six per cent of living liver donors who give at Toronto General Hospital, where Melnyk received his liver transplant, decide to give only because a family member, friend or colleague needs an organ.
“Most people give directly to someone they know. Just four per cent of living liver donors give to strangers,” Badenoch said.
In Melnyk’s case, at least 20 potential donors who answered his appeal asked to remain on the donor list.
“I want to, and am, giving back,” Melnyk said. “If I only saved one other life through my effort, I am happy and feel I have done something. I don’t ask for a thank you, I only ask that anyone that has a transplant, please pass on the message.”