The Gift of a Lifetime
On a trip across three continents to spread the word of organ donation, a young woman discovered there's still kindness in the world
He looked like someone just asked for his kidney. We've heard this often enough but it was only recently that the true weight of these words was brought home to me. The year was 2014 and my uncle's health was deteriorating slowly due to his failing kidneys. While dialysis was an option, it would entail years of discomfort and, as a neurosurgeon, he would not be able to perform surgeries. Sooner or later he would need a transplant. My dad, media entrepreneur Anil Srivatsa, mentioned that if the need arose he would give his brother a kidney. I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
While my uncle, Dr Arjun Srivatsa, was fighting to stay alive there was also the risk of something happening to dad. Thankfully, this dilemma lasted all of two minutes and my dad had my complete support. My mother, Deepali, was more fearful than the rest of us, but my younger brother, Soorya, and I managed to assuage her fears and give her the confidence she needed.
My Father Finds a Cause
"Aren't you scared?" my friends and family asked me frequently. No, I wasn't. "Nothing bad is going to happen," I kept telling myself. The way I saw it, if I left even the tiniest room for negativity, it would occupy the entire space. I wasn't going to allow that when the lives of my loved ones were at stake. Luckily, the surgeries were completed successfully. It was the end of a trying time in our lives, but also the beginning of an incredible journey.
My dad is a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Just before his surgery, he ran off to the Himalayas for a rigorous trek exploring the great lakes of Kashmir. Later, as he recuperated from the surgery, a friend came over to visit and left the seed of an idea behind. After all, when you speak to a guy like my dad, about driving from India to the UK, operation sutures or not, you can be certain that the wheels in his mind would start spinning.
"So I might be driving to Scotland," he said in a matter-of-fact tone over dinner one evening.
"What?" "Are you crazy?" "Is that even possible?" A barrage of questions piled up in front of him.
He countered our scepticism with detailed information. Suddenly, there were sponsors involved, a cause attached -- promoting awareness about organ donation -- there was a logo and a brand identity. The Gift of Life Adventure (GOLA) was born.
My father declared that my brother and I would be joining the expedition. He knighted me the 'official blogger for GOLA'. We would drive from Bengaluru to John O'Groats in Scotland starting 1 April 2016 and that was that. End of discussion.
The journey would last approximately 80 days and we would drive through 17 different countries, including India. Joining the four of us were three co-expeditioners we had connected with over social media. No number of Google searches could have prepared me for what was easily the road trip of a lifetime.
Strangers Become Friends
The 72 days we spent on the road were enriching and eventful. From breathtaking views of lofty peaks and glittering seas to a myriad of flavours that tickled our taste buds, there was enough adventure to last us all a lifetime. But, at the end of it all, it is the amazing people we met and their memories that will always stay with me.
On more than one occasion, we crossed paths with people in ways that made me believe that we were being watched over by guardian angels. The Hindi-speaking stranger in an obscure Kyrgyz town; the family that opened their home to us when we were forced to spend the night between the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; the kind Swede who offered us his home to "stay as long as we'd like", and the Bangladeshi restaurant-owner in Scotland who made sure our stomachs were filled with delicious homestyle food. Before the trip, I believed that the world was a terrible place -- being exposed to horrendous stories of cruelty and terror on a daily basis would do that to you. I couldn't have been more wrong.
I can attribute my shift in opinion to an encounter one Sunday morning in Samara, a small town in Russia that hugged the highway on either side. We were looking for a garage to repair a tyre and had spotted one with the sign for a cafÃ© just above it. Within minutes, a group of slightly tipsy middle-aged mechanics came forward to assist us. When I watched them approach us from the safety of the car, I had assumed the absolute worst. Between planning an escape route and looking for a place to hide, I found myself looking on curiously. The mechanics were laughing loudly, swinging their arms with a flourish to prove a point. One of them picked a flower off a nearby shrub and offered it to my mother. Feeling foolish I ventured out. With the tyre fixed, we had to find a food place as the cafÃ© above the workshop was closed. The next thing I knew, we were ushered through the dimly lit garage into a room next to it. To be honest, I was preparing myself for some pretty scary stuff, but instead of a scene from a thriller, it was like entering the sets of a Russian adaptation of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. A whole bunch of them was seated around the table -- with what seemed to be Sunday lunch being served. They invited us to join in, which we did happily and ended up having a great time.
Language Without Borders
Another lesson this road trip taught me is that there is really no such thing as language barrier. If two people truly wish to communicate, they will find a way regardless. I found myself appreciating the nuances of body language, vocal tones and facial expressions. The things that we take for granted in our daily lives suddenly became tools for survival. There were times when just an inquiry about accommodation or a restaurant became a challenging exercise. However, we could not take chances on our main mission: We displayed the signs we had created for spreading the message of organ donation -- on the car, with people we met. We had enthusiastic participation on our social media and the Gift of Life YouTube channel in creating awareness from large numbers of people we met. The posts and videos also became a chronicle of our journey.
Along the way, we met plenty of people who had either pledged their organs or knew of someone who had undergone a transplant. We even encountered some donors. One such donor (and recipient) was Troels 'Mirakelmannen' Mathisen from Norway. Or, as we fondly dubbed him, The Miracle Man.
Mathisen reached out to the GOLA team through the Norwegian NGO Stiftelsen Organdonasjon, which works towards increasing awareness about organ donation, and invited us to Oslo. Born with cystic fibrosis, Mathisen was on the waiting list for new lungs and a liver by the time he was 18, and was lucky to get the organs within a year. The doctors explained that the procedure would be simplified if the lungs, liver and heart were from the same body. So, he received someone else's heart and donated his own, making him one of the few heart donors who have lived to tell the tale. Post-surgery, due to heavy medication and prescribed immunosuppressants, his kidneys began to deteriorate. This time, he remained on the waiting list for two-and-a-half years and underwent dialysis until he was able to undergo the transplant. Despite all this, Mathisen lives a full life. He hasn't let the surgeries stop him from trekking, rafting or doing anything that he wants to do.
His story is an inspiration to people who don't believe that their life can go back to 'normal' after undergoing a transplant or donation surgery. Going by Mathisen's story, it can even be extraordinary! Our meeting with him proved especially fruitful -- it galvanized Dad and gave him the idea for the Million Donor Project.
On 10 June 2016, team GOLA arrived at John O'Groats -- its destination. But there was still plenty of unfinished business. The week which followed was spent driving all over the UK, spreading awareness about organ donation. Our message was simple -- be an organ donor and as soon as you choose to do so, tell your family about it. It was rewarding to see we could reach out to so many people and humbling to witness their support. Our journey ended with a press conference at the British House of Commons. It was here that my father announced the Million Donor Project, and revealed his plan to create an app that would make it easier to communicate your wish to be an organ donor. The response was overwhelming and we boarded our flight home with a sense of great accomplishment.
We had managed to start the dialogue, but there is still much left to accomplish. The Million Donor app was formally launched on 24 September 2016 in Bengaluru. When one journey finishes another begins, and by the time we had settled into our daily routines, Dad was already planning the second edition of the Gift of Life Adventure. Inspired by the holiday spirit of giving, he is scheduled to set off on a solo road trip from Italy to the Middle East in December 2016, with the aim of promoting the Million Donor app. Just one question remains: Are you an organ donor yet?
Bengaluru-based Kavya Srivatsa is 18 and completed her Cambridge 'A' Levels in 2016. She is working as a freelance writer and model during her gap year, and plans to study marketing and communications.
Become an Organ Donor
- You can pledge your kidneys, heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, cornea, small intestines, skin and bones.
- Donors should fill out official consent forms available on the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare website or from the medical facility approached for donation. This needs to be witnessed by two people, one of whom should be a close relative.
- Before the donor surgery, doctors need a written consent form from the custodian of the deceased in the format available on the ministry's website or the hospitals they approach.
- A donor card can be obtained from organ donation agencies such as the MOHAN Foundation and Organ India. While these cards are not legally binding, they are an effective tool to make your family aware of your desire. Another way to do this would be through the Million Donor Project's app.
The Million Donor Project
The app helps you sign up as an organ donor and shares this news with selected family and close friends. This message triggers a dialogue and the donor's wishes are made known to the next of kin. Once signed up, a Donor Card is generated which can be shared with physicians, caregivers, next of kin or close friends. The aim of the project is two-fold: one, to get a million future donors to sign up. Second, to make this wish known to next of kin so that it can be honoured and all formalities completed for a successful donation (Available on Android).