American gets an Indian heart

I wish the recipient a long and useful life.

But the headlines in The Hindu newspaper and the , no doubt justified, pride in the accomplishments of the medical fraternity is a little disturbing.

Nearly 25 years ago, Prathap C. Reddy, a cardiologist set up a hospital in Chennai after he lost a patient who could not afford to go to the United States for surgery. At Apollo Hospitals, things have come full circle since, with a 65-year old American undergoing a heart transplant here.

In the process, two records were also created. The patient was not only the first U.S. citizen to undergo a heart transplant in India, but he was also the oldest person to undergo a heart transplant in the country, Paul Ramesh, primary consultant cardiac surgeon who performed the surgery said.

The recipients heart function was about 28 per cent and in January, doctors back home in Minneapolis told him that he required a heart transplant within a year, failing which he would die, T. Sunder, consultant cardiac surgeon, Apollo Hospitals, explained.

However, the American recounted in a press conference on Thursday, it could have taken him a year and a half to get a heart back home. He had meanwhile, read of the facilities for heart transplant in India, checked with some friends and decided to make the trip to India to get a new heart.

On the night of July 21, the American got really lucky. A brain dead donor’s 36-year old heart was available but there were no other takers. M.R. Girinath, chief cardio vascular surgeon, called up the State co-ordinator for the Cadaver Transplant Programme seeking a go-ahead to use the heart on the foreigner. Once the sanction came, the hospital performed the transplant, working eight hours to put an Indian heart into an American.

But there is a dark side to this kind of “medical tourism”. The transplant and organ donor business in India is already a growing and lucrative business for many medical institutions and practitioners. There is now a thriving “black market” in kidneys for transplantation¬†preying on the poor on India’s slums . ¬†( After the Tsunami struck this was the only way out for many poor women in some villages in Southern India).

The grapevine tells me that the kidney “donor” is paid around 25,000 Indian Rupees (about $500) while the recipient is charged around 100,000 – 200,000 Indian Rupees (about $2,000 – 4,000) for the kidney and the paperwork to legitimise the organ. A foreign buyer is usually charged more (as much as $30,000) but kidney brokers are available to try and “minimise” the cost. The medical charges for transplantation are of course extra. The organ business is not caused by medical tourism but the money-flows are the key driving force and tourism adds hugely to the money flows.

If the organ trade now targets hearts ………..

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