The Gift of Life

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

‘When waiting is inevitable, have some reading matter handy’ – that is what I read under the heading ‘Work while waiting’ in an article about how to gain an extra hour every day, which listed ‘seven timesavers that could change your life.’

This was in a ‘Reader’s Digest’ of December 1996. I had pulled it out from my shelf of RD copies that I’ve kept collecting over the years – this particular one actually was from a dusted and cleaned bunch that belonged to my niece when she was in college. I had found them tossed in a corner in their old house when I accompanied her father, my brother-in-law, who was going there to check on something or the other. It was when we were walking out of the house from the room next to the kitchen that I suddenly spotted the pile of magazines and old notebooks lying helter-skelter on the floor, waiting to be junked some time.

That junk turned out to be a treasure trove for me. I do not know whether ‘English Digest’ was the precursor to RD, but I have a shelf-load of them too. Years ago, my cousin who was on holiday from the UK was clearing the bookcase of his late father (my paternal uncle), and called me one morning about disposal of the books and magazines that he had stacked in boxes; many of them belonged to another era: the 1940s pre- and post-World War II years. To cut a long story short, several of the books became part of my library, the rest went to the book nest at Trou-O-Cerfs and to my delight and surprise promptly disappeared; all the copies of the English Digest joined the RD copies that I already had.

But let us come back to the RD copy under reference, of December 1996. Actually, I had picked it at random when I was leaving to take my car for a fitness test a few days ago. The last time I had done that I went to the Forest Side centre at about fifteen minutes before closing time at 4 pm, on the advice of some friends, as there would hardly be a queue then. This was in fact the case, and I was done within 20 minutes.

However, I had no such luck this time: it was past five pm when I was done. And I thanked my stars that I thought at the last moment of carrying something to read with me just in case… I had actually started the car, and quickly came out and rushed back inside straight to the bookshelf and took out the first copy I laid my fingers on.

And as these things happen, my car also is of 1996 vintage. Coincidence indeed. So, as I waited in the serpentine line of cars that seemed to stretch forever towards the test point, I began to dip into the RD and only then did I realise that it also dated from 1996.

I came across a beautifully written and very touching article. This is how it ends:

‘Elayne and I have lived almost two years without our son. His was such a short life, and the pain of loss and my yearning for him can still seem intolerable. Sometimes when I think about Ben – even when I see a boy who looks like him – I dissolve into tears.

‘But life goes on, and we have to make the best of it. I have Elayne and a lovely 14-year-old daughter. I have the living support of family and friends and the knowledge Ben has helped others live on. It makes the pain a little easier to bear. Ben gave the most precious gift of all – the gift of life – to people he did not even know.’

The author of ‘Ben’s Story’ was his father Graham Harrison. In words that are too deep for tears he describes how his son had started life in 1982 with a major birth defect: a hole connecting his respiratory passage (trachea) and his alimentary one (oesophagus), and had to undergo urgent major surgery, which was successful. This resonated with me because about eight years earlier as a junior doctor at SSRN Hospital I had assisted at a similar attempt to repair a similar defect in a newborn which, however, was not successful leading to his death.

This was not a surprise, because unlike Ben who had the benefit of ICU care in Australia, we did not have any such facilities in Mauritius. No ICU then (the idea was only being flagged), not to speak of paediatric or neonatal ICU which is where such cases ought to be treated post operatively.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of Ben’s misfortune for a few years later he had to have another major operation in his chest, and again came through it successfully and began to live a more or less normal life as a growing child. However, he had another condition which also resonated because it concerned my specialty – orthopaedics. Ben had a deformity of the thoracic spine, and in 1993 had to have further surgery to correct it.

This was a planned operation and his parents had been explained everything by the surgeon, and gave their consent. Unfortunately, shortly after the surgery began, there was a major bleeding complication, with Ben collapsing on the operation table. The operation had to be stopped as he had suffered damage to his brain.

As he lay fighting for his life in the ICU, his father ‘vigorously massaged Ben’s hands and feet, trying to transfer some of my strength to him, willing him to keep going. Come on Ben, you must pull through. Yesterday my precious son had been healthy. Now I struggled to comprehend that he was battling for his life – and seemed to be losing. How could things have gone so wrong so quickly? I wondered.’

Ben lost the battle, aged 12. The next morning, when the doctors took them in a small room to announce that their son was brain dead, this is how the father describes that moment:

‘Elayne and I were silent, drained. Even in my grief, I knew what I wanted to do, and Elayne seemed to read my mind. At the same time, we said, “We want to donate Ben’s organs.” We’re in such pain. If Ben’s organs can help alleviate someone else’s suffering, it’s the right thing.’

Because of Ben’s organs, two people received the gift of life. Ben’s parents received grateful letters from them later.

Life goes on…

* Published in print edition on 21 January 2022

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