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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Public opinion shifts in favour of organ donation, says leading surgeon

A gift to the nation: cultural change is under way but challenges remain

Surgeon at work during the UAE's first full heart transplant operation. Courtesy Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi
Surgeon at work during the UAE's first full heart transplant operation. Courtesy Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi

Attitudes towards organ donation and transplants are changing as a cultural shift takes place, a leading surgeon says.

But these are early days, said Dr Rakesh Suri, acting chief executive of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and its chief cardiovascular surgeon, and many patients wait too long to be assessed as organ recipients. Many families are reticent to donate a relative’s organs, he said.

Dr Suri was a key member of the team that performed the UAE’s first multi-organ transplant, and the region’s first heart transplant from a deceased donor.

The organs from one donor had saved three lives.

Since the transplant law was passed this year, healthcare professionals have been in discussions with intensive care units to alert them of any brain-dead patients whose families would be interested in allowing their loved on to become a donor.

Dr Suri said that while residents were warming to the idea, compiling a recipient list remained a challenge because patients waited too long for a comprehensive health ­assessment.

“If someone knows that they have a chronic condition, don’t assume that it is safe to wait on it,” he said.

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“Be assessed and be told that you are in the right management or that you need to look into other therapy and if a patient is a transplant candidate, we will put them on our active and growing list. When the right donor comes along, we will do our best to match the two together.”

Dr Suri estimated that thousands of lives could be saved by organ transplants.

“Donors can pop up any time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said.

“We constantly maintain a state of readiness so we have recipients lists of heart, lung, kidney and liver patients that are always maintained by a team of co-ordinators.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates -  Dr. Suri, acting CEO of Cleveland Hospital discusses multi organ transplants from deceased donors on December 17, 2017. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
Dr Rakesh Suri, acting CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, discusses multi-organ transplants in an interview with The National. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“You can imagine the level of sophistication and maintenance of staffing required every night and day throughout the year. This isn’t something that can be done spontaneously or at different locations.”

There are plans for the UAE to have a centralised transplant unit and donor registry.

Cleveland Abu Dhabi has worked closely with Cleveland Ohio and Saudi Arabia, and other agencies such as Mubadala and Seha, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company.

Dr Suri said that citizens’ views on organ donation were changing, with some seeing it as a “gift to the nation”.

“Before we came to Abu Dhabi people were sceptical, thinking that residents would still prefer going abroad for treatment,” he said.

“But we are now seeing an influx of patients not only from the region but from around the world.

“We have seen patients flying in from England, Canada, the US. My mission is to continue this trend for complex surgery.”

Much of the credit for this cultural shift is down to the Rulers, who “have been involved from the beginning”.

“People have felt that this is not only the right thing to do in sad situation – to give the gift of life to other people – because one donor can save five,” Dr Suri said.

“It is very early days but I can see positive signs and I couldn’t be more proud of the leaders of this nation, the regulators and government for allowing it to happen.”

But more convincing needs to be done for some in the community.

“The era of multi-organ transplantation has now begun,” Dr Suri said.

“The generous gift of one donor and their family has now saved three lives, and the ability to make a social impact has launched in a way that is unprecedented in the nation.

“But we need help. We need help by people having ­discussions in mosques, ­communities, majlises about the concept of donation – what it means to them, how they ­interpret the law and how they interpret the religious ­implications.

“This would help tremendously if people begin this discussion.”

So far no announcements have been made on whether insurance will cover transplants and post-transplant care for expatriates.

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