May 20, 2023, began just like any other day at the Goa Medical College (GMC) in Bambolim. For a hospital, it was nothing out of the ordinary to see yet another ambulance pulling up and a new face on the stretcher, rolling into the corridors of the hospital.
This time, it was a 19-year-old boy who was a native of Uttar Pradesh and had been working in Goa as a painter. The boy was brought into the hospital on the fateful day in an unconscious state. It turns out that he had a freak accident while engaging in the innocent act of plucking mangoes from a tree. Looking back, his only mistake seemed to be craving a slice of mango.
Before he knew it, he had fallen from the tree and with no soft landing, sustained severe head injuries. Holding onto dear life, the boy was brought to the GMC in an unconscious state, not knowing that within four short days, he would be dead – well, not entirely.
After showing little to no improvement despite receiving the best medical care in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the 19-year-old boy suffered brainstem death, a clinical syndrome which is now certified by doctors and recognised by the Ministry of Health and the Government of India.
“The biggest issue with brainstem death is that the heart still pumps blood and the patient’s blood pressure is maintained. Although the relatives of the patient find it difficult to accept the word ‘death’, once somebody is brainstem dead, he cannot be revived,” said Dr S M Bandekar, Dean of Goa Medical College.
As simpletons that do not understand the ABCs of the medical world, we have always known the heart to be the source of life. So, how could one be dead while the heart was still beating? This question must confound the human mind in situations such as these.
Upon confirming the boy’s brainstem death, the dean made the call that no parent imagines in their worst nightmare – one that told the father of the boy that his son was clinically dead to which the father of the boy replied, “His heart is beating, he is still there – how can you say that he is dead?”
Making their way to Goa, the father and older brother of the boy met the dean, who explained the gut-wrenching intricacies of the situation to them.
“The biggest issue is that the concept of being ‘brain-dead’ is not understood by the common man,” said Dean Bandekar.
He went on to narrate how he told the father that although it was an option, they would not force him to donate the organs of his son, and neither would they reduce the intensity of the treatment that his son was receiving. But the fact remained that the boy was showing signs of life only because of the six machines that he was connected to.
He further explained that the boy was already brain-dead and that within the span of two to three days, he would be gone for good and that the rest of his organs would gradually shut down.
It was at this moment that the father of the boy uttered the bittersweet words that arose from a courage that cannot be fathomed, “I would like my son to live on in other people.”
Although human beings are known to be emotional entities who generally let their sentiments govern the decisions they make, here was a father who in his helplessness understood the bigger picture and decided that there were lives to save – even if it wasn’t the life of his beloved son.
Ultimately, the heart of the boy was retrieved at 3.30 am and was taken through a green corridor to be flown out to Mumbai for a patient in need at the H N Reliance Hospital, Mumbai. Another request for his liver came from Ahmedabad, and both his kidneys were transplanted to patients that were admitted to the GMC itself!
With the successful transplantations of the organs, all patients on the receiving end are recovering well and are grateful to a person they have never met.
“Everybody feels bad about a young boy dying because he has hardly seen life. These emotional components are always present in cases like these. But, if you see the outcome, it is so beautiful that today four lives have been saved,” added the dean.
As a gesture of goodwill, the Office of the Dean has provided an ambulance for the body of the deceased boy to be taken to Varanasi and has also arranged for the father and older brother to be flown out to perform the last rites.
Dean Bandekar urged people to come forward in support of organ donation. He said, “If you understand the whole concept of cadaveric donors, it is easily done.” Cadaveric donors are classified as non-living or deceased donors. The dean has also requested the health minister to felicitate the father of the boy who, despite being in a state of grief, took the bold decision of donating the organs of his 19-year-old son.
“That kind of decision cannot come from an ordinary person, so I would call him a hero of the programme,” he said.
At the end of the day, the father of the boy took home many titles. While some called him courageous and others brave, the only title that he carried back home was one of a heartbroken father who had just lost his younger child.
The only solace that he has is the fact that his son’s heart is still beating, somewhere in another place, hidden behind another face and in the warm embrace of joyous laughter that sounds nothing like the one he remembers.
But the selfless story of the 19-year-old boy whose organs were donated, resulting in life given to him beyond death, will be recorded in Goan medical history for posterity.