Delilah Saunders’ health improves, but recovery remains slow
“I think these situations should be looked at on a case-by-case basis”
TORONTO—Inuk activist Delilah Saunders has seen a steady improvement in her health, though she’s still calling for an end to what she calls an “outdated” policy that could prevent her from receiving a liver transplant.
The Nunatsiavut-raised, Ottawa-based Saunders suffered acute liver failure last week, but was told she did not meet criteria for a transplant because she had abused alcohol in the six months before she became ill.
That prompted a major campaign to lift the Ontario policy. The 26-year-old woman was then transferred to the Toronto General Hospital’s multi-organ transplant ward for assessment this past weekend.
With the progress she’s made, it’s not clear if Saunders will require the transplant, but she has continued to advocate for her right to such a procedure.
Saunders appeared weak, but spoke clearly to media from her hospital bed in Toronto Dec. 19.
“I’m not completely out of the woods yet,” she said. “My next step is to see a hepatologist to assess what damage has been done.”
Saunders said her Model for End-Stage Liver Disease or MELD—a scoring system used to asses the severity of chronic liver disease—is high, at 39, which would typically indicate the need for a transplant.
But it remains unclear if she can recover without one. In any case, Saunders said she has months of healing ahead of her, some of which she hopes to do from her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Friends have launched a fundraising campaign that has raised nearly $10,000 to date to support the Saunders family, who travelled to be with her in Toronto.
The funds were also meant to help pay for a legal injunction aimed at forcing Ontario’s organ donations body, the Trillium Gift of Life Network, to change its six-month abstinence rule.
For the time being, Saunders’ lawyer, Caryma Sa’d said the family is waiting for more information about the woman’s condition.
“The improvement is promising,” Sa’d said. “If she continues on that current path of recovery, she may not require a liver transplant. But I think now that she’s been affected by this issue, it’s on her radar. I wouldn’t be surprised if she decides to continue to advocate for this.”
The Trillium Gift of Life Network is already set to launch a pilot project in 2018, which would halt the sobriety requirement for liver transplant applicants over a three-year period.
Sa’d said the pilot suggests the province already acknowledges the rule is arbitrary.
“Alcoholism is recognized as a disability and a disease,” she said.
“To discriminate against an already vulnerable subset of ill people seems very problematic.”
From her hospital bed, Saunders expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support she’s seen over the last few weeks, including multiple offers from potential liver donors.
“There’s a lot of moral dilemma over who I’d be taking a liver from,” Saunders said.
Saunders’ advocacy work started soon after her older sister, Loretta Saunders, was murdered in Halifax in 2014.
Saunders testified about her sister’s death when the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women hosted a hearing in Nova Scotia last October.
Saunders, who said she was sober at the time, said she lapsed after the stress of the hearing.
But she said her liver failure was ultimately caused by the use of acetaminophen, a common analgesic usually marketed under the Tylenol brand.
“I’ve been very vocal about my recovery and my road to sobriety in the last year,” Saunders said Dec. 19.
“One thing I really want to drive forward here is for people to register as [organ] donors,” she said. “Register as a donor and also revise these outdated, antiquated policies that section off a large population.
“I think these situations should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”