Sunitha had known Suma Tharakan from a distance, the way a poor woman desperate for money would know the owner of a finance company. She had thought of Suma as “sweet and kind”.
Suma has no recollection of having met Sunitha. “Sunitha had told me she had talked to me when me and my husband had food from the canteen of Cosmopolitan Hospital (Thiruvananthapuram) during a visit to the hospital. But I don't remember,” Suma said.
Before a “mystery illness” of the kidney struck her down, Sunitha had worked in the canteen of the private hospital.
Suma first heard of Sunitha when her husband, Thomas Tharakan, told her of a woman who had come to their finance firm to pledge some very small quantity of gold for the dialysis of her daughter. Later, she learned from the staff of her company that one of their clients had put up a newspaper ad seeking help for the dialysis of a 32-year-old woman with two kids.
She collected more details and decided to visit the house, which was not far from her own at Mannanthala, Thiruvananthapuram.
Whisper of life
Sunitha considers Suma's visit to her house a miracle. “I was doing dialysis then. My husband had abandoned me because of my illness and I was constantly thinking of killing my two children and ending my life. I had nearly lost my senses. It was then she came to my side and whispered that she would be there for me. It felt as if God herself had appeared before me,” Sunitha said.
Suma found Sunitha on the verge of death. “She was weak and frail and had reached a stage where she could not identify even her children,” Suma said. Her son was three years old and daughter, 12. The house was also in a deplorable condition, unplastered, window-less, full of cracks and rotting.
For nearly a year before she was bedridden, Sunitha had been experiencing an “intolerable weakness”. There was constant vomiting, too. Sunitha had her blood checked and found that her creatinine levels were above 4 milligrams per decilitre, an alarming figure. Ideally, it should remain below one. But she went on with her routine work and one day, she just collapsed. “An unexplained kidney failure,” is how her doctors describe her condition.
Doctor's shock, donor's resolve
“For a long time I was thinking of donating my kidney. When I saw her, I thought I found the most deserving person,” Suma said.
Dr Noble Gracious, the nodal officer of Mrithasanjeevani, the Kerala Network for Organ Sharing (KNOS), said he was shocked by Suma Tharakan's request. “I didn't believe her at first. We don't really encourage unrelated donors fearing they could be in this for the money. Then, when I found she was serious, I tried to discourage her,” Dr Noble said.
“I told her that Sunitha comes from a very poor family. It is not just enough that she gets a kidney, she has to be on costly medication for the rest of her life. She said she would take care of her. Only a person close to God can think like this,” Dr Noble said.
Playing down a great sacrifice
The way Suma speaks of her sacrifice it would appear as if she had done nothing more than donate a bottle of blood. “One can easily live with a single kidney. We have living examples and I had also talked to people like Father Chirammel (the priest who had donated his kidney). My husband and my three kids (two daughters and a son) were also not against me doing something good,” Suma said.
Dr Noble said Suma's youngest son had some apprehensions. “That was just the normal anxiety any child would feel when he realises that his mother would be living with just one kidney,” Suma said. “I told him the second one is just a spare instrument. I asked him to search the net and find for himself. It is more than a year since the operation was done and he has gotten over his fears,” Suma said.
She said she was physically fit, normal. “I do routine blood tests, just to monitor my creatinine levels,” she said.
Medical College ordeal
Suma wanted the transplant done in Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. This was a decision she took with Sunitha's future in mind. “We are not what you can call a super rich family. So I thought by saving the operation costs, we can keep apart the money for her future needs,” Suma said.
A kidney transplant in a private hospital can cost up to Rs six lakh but in a Medical College it is done for virtually no cost.
But the Medical College option had a disadvantage. The pre-operative procedures would test the patience of even the most generous. A process that would have been over in just about two months in a private hospital, took over one-and-a-half years.
“Organ transplant is not taken up as a separate programme in the Medical College like in some private hospitals and so green channel facilities for transplant candidates are absent. The donor will have to go through the entire rigmarole of getting a medical fitness certificate from all the major departments in the Medical College. In a private hospital, a single point contact will facilitate all the necessary tests,” Dr Noble said.
Suma said she secured the required documents from all major departments like cardiology, nephrology, urology, gynaecology and even psychiatry. Blood, X-ray, CT scan and colour doppler tests had to be done for all departments, and that too by standing in long, seemingly unending queues. There were costly tests that had to be done outside, too, like the ones did in Regional Cancer Centre.
Also, there were non-medical conditions to be satisfied. She had to provide her bank accounts and asset statements to demonstrate that she had no intention of making any money out of this.
"I met the doctor for the first time in January 2008 and the transplant was finally done at the end of May 2019," Suma said. Incidentally, this was also the first altruistic (unrelated donor) transplant conducted in Thiruvananthapuram Medical College.
Recipient under donor's wings
For Suma, the transplant was just the beginning of her responsibility.
After discharge, fearing infection, Suma did not want Sunitha to return to her dilapidated house. She rented a Rs-12,000-a-month flat near the Medical College where Sunitha stayed for two months. During this period, Sunitha's food was taken care of with the help of Suma's friends.
Within this time, Suma made sure that Sunitha's old broken house was given a thorough facelift. The renovation was sponsored by Y's Men International South West India region. It was into this new, clean concrete structure that Sunitha returned after the operation and her short stay in a flat.
Now, one-and-a-half years after the transplant, Suma personally takes care of Sunitha's medicines, which costs between Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 a month. She has also secured Sunitha's daughter, now 14 years old, admission to St Mary's Higher Secondary School, Pattom. “Once the COVID situation changes, she will be placed in the boarding,” Suma said. Her education is sponsored by Y's Men's Club, of which her husband Thomas Tharakan is the local president.
She has also formed a small trust called Hridyam Charitable Foundation for dialysis patients. The Foundation is made up of six families, relatives and friends of the Tharakans. Hridyam, along with Y's Men Club, had installed a dialysis machine in a private hospital to provide free dialysis for patients.
But Hridyam was also born out of a deep sense of insecurity, a concern that is very parental. “What if I happen to die,” Suma said. “Sunitha should still get her medicines, and her children should continue studies. This Foundation, along with helping dialysis patients, will also ensure that Sunitha's basic requirements are unfailingly met.”
Dr Noble called this “the height of altruism”.