A life altering experience

(My first Organ Donation conversation with a family)

This unique and poignant experience, one muggy March day in Chennai changed my world view forever; at once clouding my head with unfamiliar emotions and at the same time, lifting a mist. 

The year was 2011. I had only recently joined MOHAN Foundation and was in Chennai for a week to attend a training course. MOHAN Foundation is a very unique organisation that has been doing pioneering work in the field of Deceased Organ Donation in Southern India and I had just been given charge to start their Northern Chapter. I was in Chennai to learn about the intricacies of my work as I took it forward.

That afternoon, as I was trying to comprehend a complicated lecture on brain death, I was called out by one of the MOHAN Foundation staff. I was told that at the Chennai General Hospital (the biggest government hospital in Chennai), the doctors had just declared brain dead* a young 17 year old boy from Bihar. The father had arrived a while ago and since the family only spoke Hindi, the counsellor was having a tough time communicating with them. I was asked if I could assist as I knew Hindi. I consider it serendipity – what were the chances that a Hindi speaking family should have suffered this tragedy in the only four days that I happened to be in Chennai.

I obviously agreed, though with considerable trepidation and fear as this was going to be my very first time counselling a family so recently hit by extreme tragedy and trauma.

What I witnessed at the hospital is something that will remain seared in my mind for as long as I live – the frail father in a tattered dhoti – heartbroken and lost, the overwhelming sea of humanity, the cacophony of a language alien to both him and me, the heat and humidity, the all-pervading chaos of a government hospital…

I spoke to the father – a poor and uneducated man who was probably travelling away from the familiar environs of his village for the very first time; who had just lost a son born to him as a boon after three daughters. Even before he had the chance to grieve, here was a bunch of strangers, in a strange city, asking for his son’s organs to save lives of strangers he had never met and never would meet. I was visibly shaken up myself and beyond a point had stopped trying to control the tears constantly streaming from my eyes. 

How strange it all must have seemed to this poor old father.

Not surprisingly he declined. He said he would like the body back and would prefer to return home immediately after his son’s cremation. In keeping with the ethics of counselling, I said that we respected his decision but if he could just take another ten minutes to think about it and then give a final answer. I reiterated that his loss was irreversible and that no one could feel his pain for him, but that he should once again consider giving this gift of life that could change seven to eight lives.

Fifteen minutes later the father displayed such strength of character and wisdom that I was once again moved to tears. He said that he had thought about it and was willing to donate his child’s organs provided they went to other poor people like him. Where did he find in himself the strength to take this courageous decision? Where did he find the power to put his faith in a group of complete strangers? Where did he find the large heartedness to give so generously when destiny had been so ungenerous as to snatch away from him something as precious as his child?

That experience was life altering for me.

It reaffirmed my faith in everything that is good, that is selfless, that is altruistic, and humane.

It reaffirmed my faith in the work that I had undertaken…..

11 years later, my life continues to be enriched by my first experience with that brave father and subsequently with many such families who take this courageous decision, donating their loved one’s organs in the darkest hour of their grief.

It reaffirms my faith in this world!

(*For those of you who are completely unfamiliar with this phenomenon let me quickly try to explain it as simply as I can. Brain Death results from a severe, irreversible injury to the brain or haemorrhage which causes all brain activity to stop. All areas of the brain are damaged and no longer function due to which a person cannot sustain his/her own life, but vital body functions may be maintained by an artificial support system. This maintains circulation to vital organs long enough to facilitate organ donation. The Transplant of Human Organ Act 1994 recognises this as a form of death and allows retrieval of vital organs if the immediate family gives consent.)

– Pallavi Kumar