One of the world’s best organ donation programmes is running in India but few know about it. More than half the people requested to donate organs agreed to at the Army Hospital Research & Referral (R&R), making its conversion rate for
organ donation among the highest in the world.
"Of the 17 families approached to donate the organs of the brain-dead deceased, 8 agreed to do so, which makes our conversion rate better than the UK and among the best in the world,” says Colonel AK Seth, director of Armed Forces Organ Retrieval and Transplantation Authority (AORTA). In contrast, the rest of Delhi had no brain-dead donor in any other hospital in the past one year.
What makes the achievement remarkable is that the organ donor program is very new and these 8 donations took place since April 2007 – in less than 10 months.
“Twenty-six recipients benefited from these donations because we were able to implant 6 livers, 10 kidneys, 9 corneas and heart valves from one patient. One of the kidneys was sent to the AIIMS, where it was successfully implanted,” says Brigadier R.P. Choubey, Dean of gastro-intestinal surgery at the R&R.
The credit for this vibrant donor programme goes to the AORTA that was formed 10 months ago to lower the numbers of live organ transplants happening in the hospital.
“Live organ transplants are not the first choice. While using one of the donor’s kidneys is still OK, there is some risk involved in slicing a section of a donor’s liver for a transplant,” says Colonel Seth, who is also the head of the department of gastroenterology at the R&R.
It is not religious or cultural belief that holds people back, says AORTA programme coordinator Pradhi Nambiar, whose job is to request the distraught family to donate.
“People refuse to accept a person with a beating heart can be dead. Even when a person is declared brain dead, they hope for a miracle that can put life back into them,” says Nambiar.
How the Army motivates people is obvious the moment you step into R&R: the waiting areas and corridors are plastered with posters and brochures explaining why people need to donate. (“Don’t take your organs to heaven. For God knows we need them here,” reads one).
“We need an intensive nationwide campaign but we don’t even have a national registry. We need to put it in textbooks, but in the absence of that the AORTA raises awareness through talks at schools, camps in cantonments and clubs, and by involving associations such as the Army, Navy and Air Force wives. As a result, by the time we approach the distraught family of a potential donor with a request for organs, they are familiar with the concept and understand what it involves,” says Col Seth.
The most recent donors were the family of Brigadier Y.P. Bakshi, who was shot in the head in Meerut and brought to the R&R late in the evening of January 4. “When his daughter Kamini and son-in-law General P.K. Mehta were told Brig. Bakshi had been declared brain-dead, they said, we have seen the board outside, we would like to go ahead,” says Brigadier Choubey.
Brig. Bakshi’s family says they are happy their father has helped so many lives. “We had never given organ donation any thought, you don’t think about these things when a person is alive. But I’m happy with the decision because my father’s liver was used for a 14-year-old and his kidneys have also been transplanted, one at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. His heart valves and one of his corneas have also been saved, so in death he has touched a lot of lives,” says Kamini Mehta.