KOCHI, India — Bishop Jacob Muricken, auxiliary bishop of the Palai Diocese, made history on June 1, when he donated one of his kidneys to a struggling young Hindu man in India’s southern Kerala state of India as “an act of mercy in the Year of Mercy.”
The import of Bishop Muricken’s act was summarized in the reaction of E Sooraj, a 30-year-old helper at an Ayurvedic (traditional) hospital who had been struggling to stay alive with three dialysis treatments a week since both his kidneys became dysfunctional in late 2014.
“It is incredible I am receiving the kidney of a bishop. This is beyond words,” Sooraj told the Register from his hospital bed hours before the surgery.
“Initially, we were told that a priest will be donating his kidney to me. But only during the matching tests at the hospital two weeks before, I met the bishop and was thrilled to know he was the donor. It is a divine blessing,” added Sooraj.
“The surgery is successful, and both the bishop and Sooraj are doing fine,” Father Davis Chiramel, founder-director of the Kidney Federation of India (KFI), who facilitated the unique kidney donation, told the Register on the night of June 2. Father Chiramel had just come from the ICU of Lakeshore Hospital in Kochi, where donor and recipient were recuperating following the transplant.
“When I heard Father Davis speaking at a Bible convention two years ago, challenging Christians to give life to others literally by kidney donation, I decided that I should do that,” Bishop Muricken told the Register.
“When the Pope declared the Year of Mercy, I decided it was the best time to do it,” added the 53-year-old bishop. So six months ago, he contacted Father Chiramel.
“I wanted to donate my kidney to a most deserving person. After the tests, I was given a list of matching recipients. I found Sooraj most deserving,” Bishop Muricken explained.
Sooraj hails from a poor family. Following the death of his father, Unnikrishnan, due to a snakebite, Sooraj has cared for his ailing mother, Parvathy, as well as his wife, Rasmi.
Unnikrishnan Kotteri, Sooraj’s brother-in-law, told the Register that the entire family is “amazed” by the bishop’s generous act.
“This will help strengthen [religious] harmony,” predicted Kotteri, a Hindu schoolteacher in Kottackal, 90 miles north of Kochi.
Leading by Example
“This is a historic donation,” said Father Chiramel, a priest of the Thrissur Archdiocese, who donated one of his own kidneys to Gopinathan Chakkamadathil, an ailing Hindu electrician, while serving at the parish of Vadanappilly in 2009.
Following the overwhelming public response to that act of interreligious generosity, Father Chiramel launched the kidney foundation. A number of nuns and priests have been among the more than 80 people who have donated kidneys under his guidance.
Among them is a leading Catholic industrialist of Kerala, Kochaouseph Chittilapilly, who, inspired by Father Chiramel’s gesture, donated one of his kidneys and has launched a fund to support such struggling families.
Father Chiramel undertook a 400-mile-long “mercy march” across Kerala to promote awareness about organ donation and collected nearly a million consent letters so that the organs of deceased people can be made available for transplants, as well.
Inspired by Father Chiramel’s advocacy, Father Sebastian Keezhangathazham of the Kanjirappilly Diocese donated his kidney in June 2013 to a dying Muslim youth, whom he met on a bus trip.
Amid a thriving black market, where kidney merchants extort fees from distraught families, the Kidney Federation of India is a beacon of hope for the poor: By arranging free kidneys from donors and providing support for expensive transplant surgeries, needy patients have hope of recovery.
“Willingness to donate is not enough,” Father Chiramel elaborated. “The kidneys should match. Hence, we have developed the cross-donation campaign.”
The federation insists that each beneficiary family join the cross-donation campaign, by which a member of the beneficiary family agrees to donate a kidney to a needy person proposed by the federation.
The federation also extends financial assistance to dozens of patients for dialysis, while they eagerly await word on potential free donors arranged by the federation.
Father Chiramel recounted his own experience — which reflects the deep-rooted fears about kidney donation in India — when he decided to donate his kidney seven years ago. When the news became public, a businessman friend called him and tried to dissuade him from donating the kidney, saying it was “dangerous.”
“But when I persisted with my decision, he changed his mind and came forward to donate [half a million rupees, equal to $7,500] to meet the expenses for the transplant,” recalled Father Chiramel, who has received dozens of awards for his pioneering work.
“This incident inspired me to form a network to tap such generous support to help families handicapped by kidney failure.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.