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Here’s an inspiring tale of a swap liver transplant that took place in Apollo hospital between two Muslims and two Hindus and how their families went beyond religion to save their lives

By Shobha John


 If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
—Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Raksha Bandhan came this year, Gohil Haresh, a 44-year-old photographer from Borivali in Mumbai, celebrated it with his new “sister”, Zeba Mehamood, a Muslim, and gifted her `1,000. Though Zeba is not his blood relative, she is almost like family to him. “She saved my life, how can I ever thank or repay her?” he asks emotionally.

Similarly, Zeba’s brother, Talat Haider, a 39-year-old businessman from Allahabad, is close to Pooja Ghanshyam Malvi, Haresh’s sister, who stays in Mumbai. By a strange quirk of fate, she and Zeba have been like guardian angels to Haider and Haresh respectively. Not surprising. They gave a part of their livers to these ­cirrhosis patients. If all this sounds confusing, read on.

 

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(From left) Talat Haider with Apollo’s Dr Subash Gupta and Zeba, his sister

FILMY STORY

Quite like a film script, the lives of four families were intertwined with each other as they battled to save their loved ones. In an unusual swap liver transplant, a Hindu family and a Muslim one, came to each other’s rescue at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital in June. It was the first such case in Apollo, which does some 300 liver transplants on living relatives.

The swap transplant took place as Zeba gave part of her liver to Haresh, both with B positive blood group, while Pooja donated to Talat, both with A positive blood group. “Both Talat and Haresh had NASH—nonalcoholic steatohepatitis—and were malnourished, had nausea, liver inflammation and were in and out of various hospitals for months,” says Dr Subash Gupta, senior consultant, liver transplantation surgery, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital.

“While Haresh had swelling in the legs and pain in the abdomen, along with jaundice and renal failure, Talat had a large amount of fluid in the body which had to be drained out and replaced with albumin,” he adds.

So how did all four meet? Haresh was referred to Dr Gupta by Dr Anil Suchak, an ana-esthetist from Mumbai, who got his liver transplanted by him eight years ago. “Talat was another patient of mine and was on the verge of a swap transplant a year back with a UK family. But his sister, Zeba, backed out as she has some medical problems. On top of that, Indian law does not allow swap transplants with foreigners. Once Zeba got well, I remembered Haresh’s case and as the blood group of both brothers and sisters matched, we decided to go ahead with the operation,” says Dr Gupta.

 

RELIGION OF HUMANITY

But there were hurdles to be crossed. Was it easy for the families, two Hindu and two Muslim, to trust each other and go in for such a major operation? In a climate where “love jehad” was raked up by vested political interests in certain states to create a schism between both communities, would the bonds of humanity transcend religion and narrow-minded walls? What would the first meeting between all four be like? Except for Talat, the other three stay in Mumbai. Pooja, like Haresh, resides in Borivali, while Zeba stays in Mahim. 

“I had a tough time before this operation took place. For 8-9 months, I had been admitted at least seven times to various hospitals in Mumbai. However, I was told the operation would cost me around `40 lakh in Mumbai. This was way beyond my budget. Luckily, Apollo offered me a package for `19 lakh, and I decided to do the operation there. But when I was told by doctors that my donor would be a Muslim, I must admit that for a few seconds, I didn’t know what to say. I am a pure vegetarian and I had qualms. Fortunately, Zeba too is vegetarian. My apprehensions were further eased by my doctors. Also, I knew this transplant would ease the pain of two families. I gave my ok and am happy I did,” Haresh remembers.

As to why he was apprehensive at first, he says that he had no Muslims friends and knew little about the community, except that they were different. “I wondered how they would be. But when we all met at Malad, we vibed well. Both Talat and Zeba are educated and seemed just like us. We met 2-3 times again and were together for one-and-a-half months during the operation formalities. We became closer than blood relations,” he says. He meets Zeba often and even celebrated Rakhi with her this time. He says philosophically, “Just like all five fingers of a hand are different and serve different purposes, so too, people are different.”

For Talat, meeting Haresh and Pooja in May 2014 was a god-send. “I can never forget the sacrifice Pooja made. Both she and my sister would always cry over their brothers’ plight. We all fight in the name of religion, but it has no meaning. I married a Hindu; her name is Ana-mika, which means ‘nameless’. And in the 11 years since our marriage, she has completely subsumed herself in my family. I have two children—Anamta and Ahad, both starting with the alphabet ‘A’ after their mother, Anamika. I go for the marriages of all her relatives, be it in Allahabad, Kanpur or Agra. As for Haresh, I speak to him every 10-15 days. Our bond will always be alive and I will visit him in Mumbai after I completely recover.”

 

WARM ACCEPTANCE

Anamika, a warm voice over the phone when India Legal called her in Allahabad, said she followed all the Muslim customs, be it roza or offering namaz. “I also make Muslim delicacies, be it biryani or seviyan, though I don’t have non-veg. I also celebrate Diwali.”

Does religion matter? “Though my parents have not accepted my marriage, my relatives have. Frankly, no one has time to think of religious differences, as everyone is too busy trying to live a life. Our transplant story is testimony to the fact that these differences don’t matter. I would have donated a part of my liver to my husband, but was told I didn’t have enough of the organ to do so,” says Anamika.

Finally, on June 17, 2014, the four operations were done on the same day at the same time. “This is done so that no party backs out after their operation is done. After all, this is voluntary,” explains Dr Gupta.
The operations were a mind-boggling and intricate co-ordination of doctors, nurses and technicians. “Each operation had three surgeons, two anaesthetists, two nurses and two technicians, making it a total team of 36 working to save the lives of Haresh and Talat.” Truly a remarkable feat.

But before the operation took place, doctors gave all parties a cooling off period. “This allows them to withdraw if they have any doubts or apprehensions. Though nine out of 10 operations are successful, there is also a high risk of mortality,” informs Dr Gupta.
The parties also have multiple counseling sessions by doctors, hospital-appointed counselors and the ethics committee of Apollo, and are told clearly about the possibility of death. They are, then, sent to a psychiatrist to evaluate their mental make-up.
As for religion, that topic never came up, says Gupta. “When it is a matter of life and death, what place can religion have?

Religion is not an issue for most Indians, and should ideally be kept at home. And we doctors have only one religion—of humanity,” he says.


 

 Transplant lacunae

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 (From left) Donor Pooja stands with her recipient Talat, while Haresh stands next to his
donor, Zeba

  • Transplants can be done only with close relatives, limiting the number of donors available to critically ill Indian patients. This is done to avoid monetary transactions
  • According to the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Rules, 2014, if a donor or recipient is a foreign national, the approval of the authorization committee has to be obtained. But due to cumbersome paperwork, embassies of the said countries aren’t always eager to fill up the forms
  • No medicines have yet been found to dissolve scar tissue which forms in a badly damaged liver. This would be a god-send for doctors
  • There is a big gap between availability and demand, with more than 25 percent of patients dying before they get a cadaveric liver donor 
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