Surrey kidney donor, recipient try to raise ‘disappointing’ organ donation rate in South Asian community

Published: June 16, 2013


Mantej Dhillon (black turban) donated a kidney to Randeep Singh (blue turban). The South Asian community is the least common group in B.C. to donate organs. (Photo by Steve Bosch, PNG)

Surrey’s Mantej Dhillon and Randeep Singh consider each other “lost brothers” — but they aren’t related.

The pair were complete strangers until two years and four months ago, when Dhillon donated his kidney to Singh.

Before that, Singh was on dialysis for a year, desperately searching for a donor.

“I went to my community to make an appeal … and fortunately Mantej listened,” Singh told Vancouver Desi. “I was very fortunate.”

Singh received his new kidney Feb. 8, 2011 and has been in good health ever since.

Unfortunately, Singh and Dhillon’s good news story is an anomaly.

According to the University of B.C.’s head of gastroenterology, Dr. Eric Yoshida, the organ donation rates by the East and South Asian communities in B.C. is “disproportionately low” compared with Caucasian Canadians.

Yoshida is one of the main authors of a June 15 article published in the medical journal Transplantation that looked at the demographics of organ transplant donors and recipients.

The “disappointing findings” revealed Caucasians represent 89 per cent of donors in B.C., with only 4.34 per cent coming from Pacific Asians (China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea) and a mere 1.08 per cent from South Asians (India, Pakistan).

“It’s a pretty tragic situation,” said Yoshida. “We’re talking about people who are dying on the waiting list.”

“Every single organ counts, every single one is absolutely precious, every single one has the chance of changing someone’s life for the better.”

And the East and South Asian communities are in dire need of donors, because they’re also more prone to kidney disease.

According to the provincial executive director of B.C. Transplant, Dr. Greg Grant, while an organ transplant has the potential to work in anyone, “the likelihood that they’ll work for a kidney transplant is much higher in the same genetic-makeup group.

“So blood-type-wise, tissue-type-wise — [those communities] are at a disadvantage.”

While the data doesn’t explain why they’re reluctant to donate, there’s been some suggestion it could be religious beliefs, such as wanting to keep the body intact after death, but Grant believes it has to do with mistrust.

“[As new immigrants], they’ve left places where trust in government officials was not high on the list, whereas corruption might have been very high on the list,” he said.

“You can see that they’re nervous. You can see that their trust of the nurses and the doctors is not the same as someone who has no language barrier.”

But according to the executive director of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning — who is an organ donor herself — it comes down to a lack of knowledge.

“[Organ donation] really fits well with our values as people and if our body can help someone, great,” said Vinning. “It sincerely has to do with a lack of awareness of the idea, the lack of conversation, because this is not a conversation you have in India …[and] there’s always new immigrants coming [to Canada].

“In fact … [there’s] a lot of scandal attached to it, I guess there’s health concerns with it, there’s … the black market for organ harvesting.”

Dr. Pargat Singh Bhurji, a local pediatrician, agrees.

“East Indian people, or Punjabi — they’re very giving,” he said. “The general hospitality is there, but we do need to make them more aware that this is also a generosity where you can help another person’s life by donating your eyes, or kidneys, or heart, or other organs.”

Dhillon, who immigrated to Canada in 1988, said he had not considered organ donation until he heard Singh’s moving story on the radio in 2010, and knew he had to do something.

“Otherwise, the waiting list for my group … the longest wait is for about seven to eight years,” Singh said.

Now the pair organize events throughout the community to share their story and encourage people to donate — they’ve registered more than 500 people as organ donors.

According to Dhillon, he just needs to assure the community he’s been able to live a “normal” life after being an organ donor.

“I’m playing soccer, myself I’m coaching the teams, I do the hiking, biking — everything,” he said.

Most days, it doesn’t even occur to him that he only has one kidney.

“Only when people remind me,” he said with a laugh.

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