As It Happens

Mother of recovering alcoholic fights son's exclusion from liver transplant list

Joanne Gallant is hoping to force Ontario authorities to let her son on the liver transplant wait list, despite rules that keep him off temporarily because he is a recovering alcoholic.
Joanne Gallant's son, Cary, has advanced liver disease. She is attempting to get an injunction to put him on the liver transplant list, despite a policy that requires those with alcohol-linked liver disease be sober for six months before being placed on the list. (Joanne Gallant/Facebook)

Story transcript

Cary Gallant's prognosis is not good.

The 45-year-old Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., man has advanced liver disease and urgently needs a liver transplant. But he is not allowed on the liver transplant wait list because he is not yet six months sober. In Ontario, patients with advanced alcohol-related liver disease are not placed on the wait list until they have abstained from alcohol for six months.

The doctor said, "If you survive the six months, then we will talk about a liver transplant."- Joanne Gallant

Gallant is fighting this rule and hoping to get an injunction that will force provincial authorities to put him on the list.

As It Happens guest host Helen Mann spoke with Cary Gallant's mother, Joanne Gallant. She has been caring for him since he fell ill. Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Gallant, how is your son doing right now?

Right at the moment, today, he doesn't feel too bad. He has gone through some pretty rough times though since he's been out of the hospital.

So what is it that lead doctors to determine that Cary needed a liver transplant?

His stomach was distended. They had to do what they call a tap and take fluid out of his stomach. He was in the hospital for probably over a month.

And what did they determine?

That he has cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis caused by alcohol and hepatitis [encephalitis].

I know it has to be difficult to talk about but I'm wondering if you can tell us about his prognosis?

Well, I didn't know how serious it was. We had to get his forms filled out for disability. Then when we got the papers back the discharge summaries were there and it said that he had a 75 per cent chance of passing away within six months. So that's when I realized how serious it was.

Joanne Gallant says she has been in conversation with Debra Selkirk, whose husband died of liver failure in 2010. Selkirk launched a constitutional challenge in Ontario to try to change the policy, insisting that "universal health care is to save every life you can." (Debra Selkirk )

Was the issue of a liver transplant brought up to you?

Cary told me that the doctors had told him that he probably would need a liver transplant. Then when we went to the first visit with his doctor, the doctor said, "If you survive the six months, then we will talk about a liver transplant."

And what does that mean, "the six months?"

Six months from the time he stopped drinking.

And when was the last time he had a drink?

I would say the first week of July.

What was your immediate thought when you heard about this six month limitation?

I certainly was shocked. I just didn't understand. If somebody needs something why not get on a list now, rather than waiting to see what's going to happen in six months?

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As you know, donated organs are scarce, and I understand this rule was put in place because there are concerns that people who get a liver who are alcoholics might start drinking again. What if he were to do that? 

Naturally, I'd be very disappointed. Right now, at this point, I don't even have that concern. It's not going to be part of his life again, as far as he's concerned. He has told me that and I'm not even worried about that. He told me, "I don't even crave it anymore, mom."

There's now this legal effort to get your son on that liver transplant list, to get these rules changed as well. On what grounds do you think the rules should be changed?

He should have a level playing field. He should be on the list just like anybody else, depending on his need. It's not like we want to get in front of anybody else or anything like that. It's just that we feel that he should be able to be on the list just like anyone else that might need a heart transplant or any other thing. Especially because they say that alcoholism is a disease — so if it's a disease, they should treat it like a disease.

Can you describe what all of this has been like for you?

I've had a son that I lost four years ago due to bronchopneumonia. I also have a daughter who has multiple sclerosis and she's got the worst kind. So, you know what? I just go day by day. It just seems my life has been one thing after another. I don't know if I'm just getting stronger and being able to fight more but I just go day by day.

If you were to get that injunction, what would it mean to your family that he was getting to get on the list right away?

We'd all be very, very happy. Cary is a beautiful human being. He's not just a person that drank. We all love him. He's very generous. He plays the guitar beautifully. When we have a family gathering, he's always there making the kids laugh. He's just not a person that drinks. He's a son. He's a brother. He's an uncle.

Do you think he will ever drink again?

At this point, I don't think so. I really don't think so. I think everybody's bottom is different and this, unfortunately, had to be his.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Joanne Gallant.

Trillium Gift of Life is the provincial agency that oversees the organ transplant system in Ontario. After our interview, they provided a statement which reads, in part: "Our research on liver listing criteria points to a six month abstinence from alcohol for alcoholic liver disease patients as the most commonly used protocol across Canada, the US and other international jurisdictions. As part of our review of listing criteria, TGLN is developing a three-year pilot program to determine if there is an evidence-based basis to change the criteria."