Alberta man makes $3M donation to U of A program that saved his life

In 1999, Marshall Eliuk nearly died because of a nosebleed.

The Peace River businessman was in Arizona when he started having frequent and significant nosebleeds. He flew back to Edmonton to see a doctor, who dismissed it to the dry, desert Arizona weather.

He flew back to Arizona, but had more of the same. He flew back to Edmonton to see his doctor, and had the same answer: dry weather.

A few days later, Eliuk happened to bite the inside of his cheek. The next day, he had a blister the size of a toonie inside his mouth. He went back to the doctor.

"I think we need to do a blood test — I think it's more than just a dry nose," Eliuk remembered telling him.

They did the test, and later that night, the hospital called him and told him they'd come pick him up in an ambulance.

Living only a few blocks away from the hospital, he insisted his wife drive him. He waited in the hospital for 10 hours before finally seeing a doctor.

They did a second blood test. They found his platelet count, a component of blood the body uses to stop bleeding, was down to 8,000 units per microlitre — down from 140,000 units per microlitre, the minimum found in a healthy person.

"If any vein would have broken inside of me, I would have just bled to death sitting there," Eliuk told CBC's Radio Active Thursday.

He found out he had aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder, and they had to give him a blood transfusion immediately.

He got his first transfusion and felt great. He thought he was fine, so he drove to Kelowna on a planned trip. But little did he know, he risked his life again by driving to B.C.

12 bags of blood a week

Aplastic anemia is a rare disease that affects a maximum of 432 new Canadians every year, according to the Aplastic Anemia and Myelodysplasia Association of Canada.

Eliuk said the disorder is a cousin to leukemia, and that his version was acute — meaning that it not only attacked the blood his body was making but also the blood that was being transfused.

This meant he needed six bags of blood every three days.

After getting another transfusion in Kelowna, he drove back to Edmonton. He couldn't fly because the high altitudes could have caused a nose bleed.

He and his doctor talked about treatment for the disease. He remembers his doctor breaking bad news to him.

"I'm afraid to tell you, but you're mine forever," he remembers his doctor saying, telling him he's stuck in the hospital for the rest of his life.

But after the constant transfusion and treatment with a barely tested drug, after nine months, he started to miraculously get better.

"All of a sudden, one day, I got my blood code back," he said. "And I've had it back ever since."

He figures it was a combination of the medication and the positive determination he maintained — as a businessman, he hated going back to the hospital twice a week because it was time he didn't have.

"I said to myself, 'I have no time for this,'" Eliuk said. "I really owed [getting better] to the hospital."

Now, he's giving back.

'You saved me'

After giving a $1.5 million donation to Canadian Blood Services a few years ago, Eliuk was asked to look at giving to the hematology program at the University of Alberta.

Recently, he gave double his first donation — $3 million — to the program.

Dr. Louise Larratt, a clinical hematologist at the University hospital, is quite grateful for the donation. She said the money has three uses: to develop a patient-family room for those with extended stays at the hospital, to create an area for doctors and teachers to interact with patients, and to provide grants.

Larratt said the family room is desperately needed for those with blood disorders as well as types of leukemia.

"It's going to be a very positive place, just for their well-being," Larratt told CBC's Radio Active Thursday.

The gift is big, but Eliuk said the hospital deserves it more than he needs it. "If it wasn't for [the hospital], I wouldn't be making that gift.

"[They] saved me."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.