Grief can do a lot of things to people: it can cause severe depression; it can make them behave irrationally; sometimes even violently; and in some cases can unearth latent creativity. Some of the best works of art and literature have been the result of unremitting grief of the creators. But where the family comes forward to donate the bodies of their loved ones, grief is at its positive best, because even in death, there is hope for other lives to be saved.
Last week the newspapers were filled with the story of a grieving family donating the organs of their only son who had died in a road accident. Why was this so touching and significant? The boy was just 21 and the only child at that. But for this family, the fact that their son’s organs could give life and meaning to to those of others, and because they believed that their son would have wanted it that way, helped make their minds up.
We often don’t stop to think of a problem because we feel that it may never happen to us. But none of us is above ill health and death. Accidents and emergencies happen and so do organ malfunction and failure, sometimes due to faulty health habits and at other times due to congenital issues.
One family I know of, lost a daughter a few years ago to a congenital degenerative disease. They have another daughter who is facing multiple organ failure today. Both her kidneys have failed and she is waiting for a donor – her name thousands deep on the list. Her only hope for a quick recovery is to find a relative who is ready to give her a kidney. The girl is in her early 20s. But her travails will not be over with receiving a kidney. She will then have to wait for a replacement liver and pancreas too. So far at least half a dozen relatives have come and gone and though one uncle’s medical parameters matched with hers and raised their hopes, he has subsequently changed his mind about giving his kidney. The family is now back to square one.
Advances in medical science have ameliorated much human suffering, by bringing in cutting edge technological and medical solutions, but there are still areas where all the development is useless. If you are wondering how this can be, take the case of organ transplants. From the time Dr.Christian Barnard performed the first human heart transplant in 1967, today it is possible to transplant organs like liver, pancreas, in addition to cornea, heart valves and tissues and much more.
But of what use is all the advancement when donor organs are in short supply and thousands of people are dying for lack of them? Live donors can give only some organs like kidneys and lungs and parts of liver and intestines. But fear for their health and medical incompatibility often make it difficult to procure organs for transplant. Added to it, is the legal procedures involved. (Link) In India every year there is a need of approximately 175000 kidneys, 50,000 hearts and 50,000 livers for transplantation. As against the need, only 5000 kidney transplants in 180 centres, 400 livers in 25 centres and 10-15 hearts in very few centres are done annually. (Link)
Commercial transplants where the organs are paid for, are banned by most countries, resulting in an illicit trade (Remember Coma by Robin Cook?) in many developing countries including India. The poor are the target for the unscrupulous organ traders, where sometimes even medical professionals are actively involved. In order to stop this trade in human organs, some developing countries have completely banned organ transplants from anyone other than close relatives. While Singapore has legalized commercial organ donations for the same reason, but the state has undertaken to provide follow up and free lifetime health care to the donors.
One way to solve the problem of the shortage of organs is cadaver organ donations from brain dead patients, (Read this link for more information on organ donations) and most brain dead casualties are from accidents. According to the 2010 statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau, every hour, 40 people under 25 die in road accidents around the globe. This figure has crossed a staggering 1,35,000 in India. Imagine how many lives can be saved if the relatives came forward to donate the organs of their loved ones! But already shattered and traumatised by the violent death, the family is unwilling to let the body be further mutilated and so decline donating the organs which can save other lives. At times, they even override any desire of the deceased to donate his or her organs and simply delay or fail to inform the hospital authorities.
Most religions including Hinduism encourage organ donations. The famous legend of Dadhichi maharishi — who gave his life to let the gods use his spine to fashion an indestructible weapon to vanquish the demons — is an example. Muslims however do not allow organs to be removed since Islam decrees that the body has to be whole while being buried.
Some of the organs that can be used from a deceased person are: Heart, Lungs, Liver, Kidneys, Eyes, Tissues, (including heart valves, tendons, cornea and skin), Intestines, Pancreas, Bones, Femoral and Saphenous veins.
Consider this: One organ donor can save up to eight lives. The same donor can also save or improve the lives of up to 50 people by donating tissues and eyes.
Isn’t it amazing what a person can do to help his fellow humans even after death?
Coming to one of the simplest forms of organ transplants – the cornea, it would come as a surprise that getting even these is not so easy. According to WHO, there are 285 million visually impaired people worldwide, of which 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision. 90% of these live in developing countries. India with 15 million blind, has the ignominy of being in the lead. We have many organisations that facilitate eye donation and provide the donors with cards. Roping in film stars and celebrities like Aishwarya Rai Bachhan to spread awareness has also paid dividends in recent times.
Sri Lanka has one of the most successful eye donation campaigns, led by the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society. It not only provides corneal transplants to its own citizens, but also exports them to other countries, Pakistan, being the main recipient, due to the Islamic laws in operation there. It has so far provided over 60,000 corneas and has an enrolment of 900,000 donors.
Though the Human Organ Act (THO) was passed in India in 1994, there is a lot that needs to be done as far as organ donations go:
- Proper facilities to preserve the organs when they are donated. Many hospitals do not have the required facilities for doing this.
- A tighter framework of laws should be in place to encourage people to come forward and donate not only their eyes but also their organs after their demise.
- No preference for the rich and the powerful should be given, with the only criterion being who needs the organ most urgently.
- A concerted awareness campaign to enable these measures to take effect should be undertaken on a war footing. This has borne fruits in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, which have the highest numbers of cadaver donors till date.
After all a body for a life, nay, many lives, is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
Some organisations engaged in cadaver donation programmes: (Readers please add any others if you know of them)
Mohan Foundation (Hyderabad)
…and a blog dedicated to creating awareness about organ transplants:
Homepage image courtesy: bakerella.com