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Learning unlocks all doors

Newsletter Issue 35 : Jan 2015

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A new life

article by Reg Green, sourced from TOI Jan 1, 2007

Six years ago, America's Chris Klug, world champion snowboarder, was fighting for his life. His liver was so diseased that it could not be repaired. 
At 33, he looked like a yellow and haggard old man. He was saved when someone completely unknown to him was declared brain dead and whose family decided to donate the organs to whoever needed them most. 

The liver went to Klug and two years later in a sport that places inordinate demands on the body, he took the bronze medal in the 2002 Olympics.

Every year tens of thousands of other lives around the world are saved or improved by similar decisions. This is possible because, when a person is brain dead, the organs can be kept functioning for a short time by ventilators that pump oxygen into the lungs.

Those organs — heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas and lungs — can then be transplanted to patients whose own organs are about to fail.

In the US, about half of all families put aside their own grief for a while and say yes. Each of those decisions saves an average three or four lives.

In India, by contrast, donating the organs of the family member who has just suffered brain death is almost non-existent. In the past 12 years there have been fewer than 150 liver transplants, fewer than 40 heart transplants and only two lung transplants.

This puts India down among the very lowest donation rates in the world. So tiny is the flow of organs from deceased patients that in a country with a population of one billion there are only seven full-time and 60 part-time transplant surgeons.

Just about the only organ donations that take place are from living donors who give one of their kidneys to a family member who would otherwise die. Generally, both the donor and the recipient recover well and can go on to live virtually normal lives.

Such individual acts of courage, however, cannot touch the main problem and the consequences are massive. An estimated 1,00,000 Indians die of kidney failure every year, another 80,000 from liver failure and 80,000 more from failing hearts.

A happy boy of eight had received a part of his mother's liver, which has since grown inside him to the size needed for his young body, and will go on growing as he matures, while the part left in his mother's body has also grown to the size she needs. They were present at an extraordinary event held last year in Ludhiana — the All-India Transplant Games and South Asia Transplant Olympics. Due to negligible donation rates from the brain dead, which are the dominant source of organs in western countries, these people are exceptions in India.

Tampering with the body of the loved one, even though it is treated with all the carefulness of a normal surgical operation on a live patient, is also for many Indians too horrifying to contemplate.

The hope of narrowing the gap has to lie with the rapidly-expanding middle class who, with all their problems, might in time come to realise that faced with a situation in which their own loved one cannot be saved, they can do more at that moment to change the world for the better than any other time of their lives.

As an American, I can attest to the transformation that can result. In 1994, my seven-year-old son, Nicholas, was shot in an attempted robbery while we were on a family vacation with him in Italy. My wife and I donated his organs and corneas, which went to seven Italians, four of them teenagers. 
Without a transplant two of them would now be blind and most, if not all the others, dead. As it is, 12 years later, all seven are alive and well. 
If we had said no, my wife and I could never have looked back without a deep sense of shame.

Every year thousands of families around the world make the same choice. I do not know of anyone who regretted the decision.