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
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
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
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
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
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.