NEW DELHI: Until nine months ago, Sushma Uniyal and Sultana Ali were perfect strangers, going about their lives in Dehradun, the capital of the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, as homemakers of middle-class Hindu and Muslim families.
The two women had little in common except for one pressing issue – to find an urgent donor for their husbands, Vikas Uniyal, 51, and Ashraf Ali, 52, who had been suffering with kidney failure since 2019.
While the two families had filed separate applications for a donor, none had turned out to be the perfect match. Sushma and Sultana could not donate kidneys to their husbands either due to incompatibility issues.
That was until one extraordinary day in January this year, when they received a call from Vikas and Ashraf’s nephrologist, Dr. Shahbaz Ahmed.
“I was going through their files and realised that Sultana’s blood group, A, matched Vikas’ and Sushma’s matched Ashraf’s, a B. I immediately contacted the families,” Ahmed, a renowned kidney specialist at the Himalayan hospital in Dehradun, told Arab News.
His proposal was for Sushma and Sultana to donate their kidneys to Ashraf and Vikas, but for that to work he needed to address an area of concern first. Would the two families be willing to set aside their interfaith differences for a kidney transplant?
Hindu-majority India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has long had a history of religious tension with Muslims, its biggest minority group constituting more than 200 million of its 1.36 billion population.
Modi has often been accused of presiding over a spike in polarization across the country by introducing laws considered discriminatory for non-Hindus, mainly Muslims, since assuming power in 2014.
The past few years have also seen an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, prompting changes in the Islamic names of cities, with several cases of mob lynching reported.
Ahmed was aware of the interfaith quotient involved with the transplant surgery but decided to ask the question anyway.
“I introduced the families to each other in January, and they agreed to the plan. After conducting several tests, I found that their organs could be swapped ... and would be a good transplant. That’s how it started,” he said.
A few months later, he set a date for the organ swap, but the process got delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had wreaked havoc on the country’s overwhelmed healthcare system due to the lack of medical oxygen and bed space at hospitals.
Finally, on Sept. 4, in an overnight surgery that took 10 hours to complete, the two families forged a bond through the kidney swap which, Ahmed said, was legally possible for others to do too.
Under India’s Transplantation of Human Organs Act 2011, an organ swap is permissible if the immediate relative is medically incompatible with the recipient. The law, in this case, allows people other than a blood relative to donate their organs to a medically compatible recipient.
“It was good that this kind of swapping was possible under the law. Otherwise, it would have been difficult to explain and prove,” said Ahmed, who performs two to three kidney transplants a month. “This is the best therapy for kidney patients.”
With 2 million people on the waiting list for kidney transplants, India is struggling to meet demand and legal donations only fulfil 3 to 5 percent of the total requirement.
A transplant process costs over $8,000 per person and usually takes about 10 to 15 days to complete. It includes matching blood groups and other screening processes between the donor and the recipient, in addition to compatibility tests.
Vikas and Ashraf remained in hospital for three days after the surgery and are recuperating at home, in time for their monthly checkup with Ahmed.
A few weeks after the surgery, the two families continue to stay in touch and “share feelings and thoughts” on how the organ swaps have offered them a lifeline.
“I’m so happy that this surgery has given Vikas a new lease of life. The last three years were so painful, and we worried about our future if something happened to Vikas,” Sushma told Arab News.
Since being diagnosed with kidney failure three years ago, teacher Vikas said he had fought fear, pain, and financial losses to extend his life with regular hemodialysis, a process where an artificial kidney, or a dialyzer, filters the blood from the body.
On the other side of the picturesque and hilly town of Dehradun, Ashraf was also dealing with a similar trauma but said he was a lot more “confident now to start a new life.”
“It was an unbearable pain for my family and me. My health was deteriorating with each dialysis but thanks to god for this opportunity,” Ashraf, who owns a flour mill in Dehradun and had to stop work for dialysis treatment, told Arab News.
While there have been other instances of interfaith transplants in India – a kidney swap took place in the northern city of Chandigarh in May 2019, and another one in Jaipur in 2016 – the Uniyal and Ali families have become the talk of the town since the surgeries, mostly for transcending religious boundaries with their decision.
“At a time when religious polarization has become a norm, such examples give a positive hope for the society,” Anoop Nautiyal, a Dehradun-based social activist and founder of the Social Development for Communities NGO, told Arab News.
Ahmed agreed, saying he felt “happy” that it sent “a good message” to society.
But Sushma believed the Hindu-Muslim divide was “a matter of mindsets.”
“In reality, we are all the same,” she said. “We all need each other to serve society. Humanity is the same. Those who practice and promote religious hatred are not doing service for humanity. We never thought our case would become an example for society, and people will talk about it, but we feel happy that we came together to save the lives of two individuals. We never thought like Muslims and Hindus.”