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The Gift of Life Adventure – Part I

Anil Srivatsa is an Indian-American journalist and radio talk show host from New Jersey. Five years ago, he donated a kidney to his brother. Anil now lives in India, where he conceptualized the idea for his Gift of Life Adventure (GOLA), a 50,000-mile road trip through 41 countries to spread living organ donation awareness and register more people as donors worldwide.

If there’s one thing that defines Anil, it’s having a vision and sticking to it. As the founder and CEO of Radiowalla, the largest corporate digital audio company in India, Anil faced numerous hurdles building his niche startup into the booming business it is today. Similarly, when Anil was faced with the decision of donating his kidney to his brother, he had to overcome many barriers—within the Indian judicial and legal systems, as well as within his own personal life—to, ultimately, save his brother’s life. After a successful kidney transplant surgery for himself and his brother, Anil had a new goal in mind: to spread the message of living organ donation around the world through travel.

Anil’s brother, Arjun, a neurosurgeon in India, was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD) in 1991, but never told Anil about his illness until his kidneys began to fail in 2009. It was at that point that Arjun asked his brother about the possibility of living kidney donation.

“I had so many questions. It isn’t something you’re prepared to consider at any point in your life,” Anil said. “We’re so close in age—only a year apart—and we share such a strong bond. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I would do this for him.”

It was only when Anil made the decision to donate a kidney to his brother that he realized how many barriers stood in the way of doing so. In India, a living organ donor must first sit down with a doctor for a counseling session and discuss the risks associated with living donation.

“There were a lot of challenges,” Anil explained. “We are so used to saying or hearing the word ‘no’ in our lives. It’s easier to say ‘no’ than it is to say ‘yes.’ Especially as a living organ donor, I had many opportunities to say no.”

When Anil sat down with his doctor, he asked Anil if donating his kidney was really something he wanted to do.

“Yes! That’s why I’m here!” Anil exclaimed.

The doctor replied, “No, really. If you don’t want to give one of your kidneys—if you want to save face with your brother—we will find a medical reason that would prohibit you from donating. Would you like to say no?”

He was giving Anil an out. Anil understood why he was doing so. “In a society like ours,” Anil explained, “there are many social and familial pressures. Sometimes, people are forced into donating an organ. That’s why transplant doctors have these counseling sessions privately. They’re trying to find out if that person is really a willing organ donor or if they’ve been coerced (or guilt-tripped) into becoming one.”

Anil continued to explain that, when these private counseling sessions take place, many people admit that they don’t want to donate and the doctors tell their family members that they are not medically fit to do so. This way, they maintain the relationships they have with their loved ones.

When his doctor posed this question to Anil, he responded, “I want to do this. I don’t know what my future holds, but I know I want to save my brother. I know I want him in my life.”

Then came the next gauntlet: the legal system in India. Because Anil is a dual citizen (he holds both U.S. and Indian citizenship), he was required to obtain a “No-Objection” certificate from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The illegal buying and selling of organs on the black market is a real problem in India and, therefore, every living organ donor must receive approval from a transplant approval committee within the Indian government in order to donate one of their organs. This also means there is a lot of paperwork surrounding the approval process.

“This is the other reason potential living donors tend to back out: it’s not worth the time. But I fought it,” Anil said, “I’m an American citizen and an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI). In America, the government can’t butt in if I want to donate an organ to somebody else. It’s my choice. That being said, I’m an OCI as well and I have the same rights as any other Indian citizen. I shouldn’t need a ‘No-Objection’ certificate. I threatened to take the Indian government to court over this. Finally, they relented and gave me the approval to be my brother’s living donor.”

The final challenge I faced in the living donation process was, by far, the worst. When I talked to people in India about living donation, I learned that this is the point that leads many of them to walk away from donating. The law in India requires that a potential living organ donor must receive permission from their spouse—the spouse must give their written consent. Obviously, this hinders many potential living donors from going through with the donation because their spouses have the final say in the matter. If you have a husband or wife who is on the fence, they have the power to call the whole thing off.

My wife was scared for me. She had to attend the same kind of counseling session that I received, with a doctor, and they informed her of the risks associated with living organ donation. Doctors do this for legal reasons—they don’t want to be liable for any complications following the surgery.

My wife is the wrong person to tell these things to. The doctors informed us of the odds associated with these procedures—statistically, one in 3,000 living donors die during the surgery—which are pretty big odds, all things considered. However, we had young children. I am also the sole breadwinner for our family.

She refused to consent. “If anything were to happen to you, I would feel so guilty,” she said. “If I signed that paper to give my consent and something were to happen to you, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself for the rest of my life.”

I couldn’t argue with her, but it did put me in a difficult spot. My brother’s health was rapidly deteriorating while I could only sit back and watch. This created a lot of tension between my wife and me; the predicament took a toll on our marriage. It finally came to a head when we both considered getting a divorce. It seemed like the only solution at the time. The sole reason my wife had the right to say no on my behalf was that she was my wife, but I was determined to give my kidney to my brother to save his life. I, of course, loved my wife and my children, but my brother needed me. I didn’t know whether to save my brother or save my marriage.

Ultimately, I left home—I just vanished. I decided to go camping for 15 days through the Himalayas. I told people I was on a trek, but it was really to clear my head and spend some time on my own. I let close friends and family know the general area of where I was headed but, for the most part, I was radio silent; there wasn’t any cellphone connection anyway. Nobody could contact me.

After those 15 days, when I got back into cell service, the first call I received was from my wife. She told me that my brother’s health had gotten worse while I was away.

“Arjun needs your kidney,” she said.

“What are you saying?” I asked her.

I’m saying I’m okay with it. I’ll give my consent. Give your kidney to Arjun.”

I was shocked and curious as to what happened in my absence. My wife told me that our two children had sat her down while I was gone. They told her they wanted me to donate one of my kidneys to Arjun, if that meant saving his life—they are close to him as well. My daughter, who is the older child of the two, assured my wife, “We are not afraid of anything. We’re confident things will be okay and nothing will happen to Dad. Even if something were to happen, we will be fine. You and Dad have raised us to be strong and the three of us will be able to handle it as a family. Dad wants to save his brother—if I wanted to give my kidney to save my brother, would you allow me to do it?”

“The kids want it for you,” my wife continued. “My fear came from the kids; I was afraid for them—for their future. They have shown me how strong they are in the face of all this…what is my reason for being scared?”

She signed off on her consent. There was nothing standing in the way of donating now.

*******

In the end, everything went smoothly. After the surgery, in the intensive care unit (ICU), Arjun was lying kitty-corner to me in his hospital bed. He was in the same state as I was. I couldn’t talk when I regained consciousness, but I gave him two thumbs up and motioned to him, “Are you okay?” He flashed two thumbs up back to me and nodded.

Once I was up and moving around, I went over to my brother and talked to the kidney that was once inside of me. “Listen, you have a new home now and you have to do well there. Make this count; make this work.”

My brother saves people every day on the operating table as a neurosurgeon. Saving his life was a way to ensure the lives of others would be saved as well. Before the transplant surgery, I told Arjun that the one thing I wanted in return was that, each month, he would perform one surgery, completely free of charge, for someone who could not afford it. Save that person. Pay it forward. He agreed.

When I donated my kidney, I had no idea I would become a champion for organ donation. That was never my plan.

It took me two months to recover after the surgery. While I was recovering, a friend of mine visited me and let me know that a group of our friends was planning a cross-country drive from India to England. He invited me to come along. I didn’t think it was possible. I began researching the logistics for this road trip and discovered that many people had done drives like this before. Although not many Indians had done it, I made the decision to join my friends.

Although my friends never ended up joining me on this cross-country expedition, the idea was firmly set in my head. I started putting a lot of effort into planning the trip, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt that I was going just for the fun of it. Prior to the transplant surgery, I would run marathons and go on overseas expeditions to raise money for charitable causes. I began thinking, “If I’m going to go through all of this trouble, I want to make it count for others as well.”

I’m a radio host and, until about six months ago, I had a talk show where I spoke to people about love and relationships. Originally, my idea was to use this road trip as a means of meeting people from different countries along the way and talking to them about love and what it means to them.

However, I still felt that this wasn’t “giving back” enough. I was picking the brain of a senior journalist for the show one day when he said to me, “Anil, you just went through living kidney donation. Why don’t you promote organ donation awareness on this drive, since you’ve learned so much about it during the process?”

Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in my head. Why didn’t I think of that? It was a no-brainer. Love was the reason I went through what I did for my brother. In my opinion, love is the only reason anyone would donate an organ to somebody else—love for somebody you know personally or love for helping a stranger in need. Love is the only thing.

Stay tuned for Part Two of Anil Srivatsa’s incredible cross-country drive from India to the UK, all to raise awareness for organ donation.

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