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Chennai’s heart beats for a selfless act

BARRING political revolutions, a single death does not change ground realities. But the death of a 15-year-old—and the selfless act of his parents thereafter...

Written by Gopumohan | Chennai |
January 1, 2009 12:38:35 am

BARRING political revolutions, a single death does not change ground realities. But the death of a 15-year-old—and the selfless act of his parents thereafter—brought about nothing less than a revolution in cadaver transplants and also gave a new meaning to the phrase ‘life after death’.

Hitendran was only 15 when he met with an accident on September 20 this year. The boy was riding his father’s bike and the crash damaged his brain fatally. His parents Ashokan and Pushpanjali, both doctors, realised their only son was slipping and decided to donate his internal organs.

Hitendran’s heart was transplanted to nine-year-old Abirami from Bangalore who was admitted in Frontier Lifeline Hospital with a congenital heart disease. “My son was too young to ride a bike and as parents, it was our mistake. But we could not let him go like that. Now all those who received my son’s organs are doing well; we know our son is living on,” Dr Ashokan said from his residence in the neighbouring district of Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu.

About 80 persons pledged their organs at various meetings held to honour the parents and the awareness spread fast. A trust, the AP Hitendran Memorial Trust, was formed to address road safety and organ donation. A street in Chengalpettu district was named after him.

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Since then, there have been many such donations across the state, with people pledging to donate their organs to hundreds of patients who are critically in need of organ transplant. Tamil Nadu leads in cadaver transplants—about 50 per cent of all such donations and transplants in India are done in the state. But this is still a small number as till last year, the national average was only 0.02 cadaver donations per million of the population. This year, the ratio has gone up to 0.08 cadaver donations for a million and doctors say it’s all inspired by the Ashokan’s act.

“People confuse brain death with coma. When a person is brain dead, there’s nothing that can be done but in the case of a coma, the patient’s vital organs are fine. Our son was brain dead and as doctors, we knew he would not come back to us. So we decided to donate his organs to those in need of it. We were distraught and it was our way of coping with the pain,” said Dr Ashokan. According to Dr Sunil Shroff, a cadaver transplant activist, there have been at least 20 such donations in Tamil Nadu since September, all inspired by the Ashokans’ act. “In the West, about 90 per cent of transplants are cadaver transplants, while in India, the focus is still on living donors,” Dr Shroff said. This, he says, gives rise to malpractices like trading in internal organs, particularly kidneys, which made the country an ‘organ warehouse’.

Brain death is a condition where the brain is damaged beyond repair and the person continues to live only if he is put on a life support system. These are potential donors—their heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, liver, eyes and skin can be retrieved and transplanted, but only after the death is clinically and legally confirmed by a panel of doctors.

“But not many doctors are willing to declare a patient brain dead. They do not disclose it to the relatives of the patients and put the person in intensive care till the person dies after the heart stops,” said Dr Ashokan.

Only four states—Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra—do cadaver organ transplants. Last year, there were 90,000 accident deaths in India and 30-40 per cent of the victims suffered fatal head injuries. “From the perspective of a doctor who is desperate to save the lives of many who are in urgent need of organ transplant, it is disappointing to see the organs of a large number of brain dead persons left to rot or burn,” said Shroff.

After the Hitendran incident, the state Government came forward with a series of pro-active orders, and entrusted a senior Government surgeon with the task of coordinating all cadaver organ donations and transplants.

Meanwhile, Abirami celebrated her tenth birthday on December 7.

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