Surrey man turns to India for transplant donor after years waiting in B.C. (w/ video)

Published: July 9, 2013

LARISSA CAHUTE
VANCOUVER DESI

After three years on the wait-list for a new kidney, Surrey’s AJ Thind feels he’s exhausted all his options in British Columbia — so he’s looking to India instead.

The 44-year-old was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2003 and for the past three years he’s been spending more than 20 gruelling hours a week strapped to noisy dialysis machines at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

The time-consuming and tiring treatment has cut his work hours in half and he can barely even travel to the U.S. to visit his two children.

“It’s like there’s this leash on me,” he said.

The only thing that could make his life “completely normal again” is a kidney transplant — a South Asian donor his most-likely match, but with incredibly low organ donation rates among B.C.’s South Asian community, Thind has been told he could wait up to ten years.

AJ Thind during his overnight dialysis at Surrey Memorial. He’s in desperate need for a kidney donor. Mark van Manen/PNG

He’s already turned to family, friends and social networks for potential donors without any luck, so his father has started travelling to India to scout potential donors among family and friends there.

The desperate search for an out-of-country donor is not uncommon among local South Asians — in 2012 six out of 83 live donors in B.C. came from out of country.

While doctors support it if the patient finds the right match, it’s a “tricky” process, according to St. Paul’s Hospital nephrologist, Dr. Jagbir Gill.

“The biggest hurdle to be honest has been Immigration — so it’s a challenge,” he said. “We will provide letters and we will explain the scenario … but it is hit and miss.”

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, when someone applies for a temporary resident visa (TRV) for the purpose of organ donation, they must prove they’re a match for the patient, the medical costs are covered and that the sale of organs isn’t taking place. They’ll also have to fit all the regular criteria for a TRV.

“The whole process can take a good year sometimes,” said Gill, adding that if the government sees them as an immigration risk, it’s out of the doctors’ hands.

While he believes strict guidelines are important, more dialogue and understanding for legitimate cases would benefit not only the Canadian in need, but also the health care system.

“Transplantation quite frankly saves money to the system because it takes people off of dialysis, which is a much more expensive form of therapy,” said Gill.

It also keeps patients away from the dangerous option of going out of country for the surgery, which is often done illegally in black markets and has a higher risk of infection and rejection.

“If someone goes to India and they’re buying an organ that’s an illegal act – they’re not going to a renowned institution … they’re going to a group of people who are breaking the law,” said Gill. “It’s the poorest segment of the population that are selling their kidney in those countries and the screening is very questionable.”

Yet nearly 100 people from B.C. have done this in the last ten years, he said.

Thind is constantly reviewing the alternatives, desperately searching for a way out of his three nights a week spent at SMH on overnight dialysis — a new program aimed at improving patient lifestyle, so they sleep during the session instead of giving up their days to treatment.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays Thind heads to the renal dialysis unit, overnight bag in tow, sets up his hospital bed to mimic the comforts of home — hooking up his phone, a blanket — before his already swollen veins get poked by the nurse’s “giant needles” as he’s hooked up to the humming and beeping dialysis machine from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Even if he manages to catch some shut-eye under the fluorescent lights and ambient noise, the dialysis still makes him “sluggish.”

While he anxiously and painfully waits for a new kidney — either from India or B.C. — he’s worried he’ll be near 60 by the time he gets one.

“Your twenties you’re kind of learning about life experiences and in your forties you enjoy it and in your fifties, sixties – you’re kind of looking towards … helping your children, your family. Like your golden years,” he said. “I just feel like I’ll have missed most of that.”

Related story:

Doctors desperate for organ donations — especially among ethnic minorities in B.C. 

AJ Thind during his overnight dialysis at Surrey Memorial. He’s in desperate need for a kidney donor. Here Thind shows off the very large swallow lumps in his arm from the many injections he regularly gets in hospital. Mark van Manen/PNG

With 400 people in British Columbia desperately waiting for a kidney transplant, doctors and dialysis patients alike are desperately trying to raise awareness of organ donation.

According to a study released in the June issue of the medical journal, Transplantation, ethnic minorities are least likely to donate organs — 89 per cent of B.C. organ donors were Caucasian, with South Asians making up a mere 1.08 per cent.

“The reality is in certain cultural groups, diseases have a stigma attached to it,” said Dr Jagbir Gill, nephrologist at St. Paul’s Hospital. “It’s a lot for people to have to put their disease out there to have to put out the fact that they need a transplant.”

It’s believed much of the hesitation has to do with lack of awareness as well.

“Donating a kidney is not associated with death,” said Gill. “People’s risk of developing kidney disease doesn’t change by donating a kidney.”

“We live without our appendix, without our gall bladder and people don’t have any long term effects from it.”

Potential donors undergo a number of tests to ensure it’s safe to donate.

And if time or money is an issue, the Kidney Foundation of Canada has a reimbursement program for those facing financial barriers, which covers hospital expenses and a certain amount of travel and loss of income.

According to Gill, organ donor patients spend about two days in hospital and require up to 4 weeks off work (eight weeks for heavy work).

“Most people feel quite good by the end of the first month,” he said.

lcahute@theprovince.com
twitter.com/larissacahute

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