Chased by a serial killer on the Alaska highway, a drive through a region of political turmoil and four bouts of Covid… not any of this has deterred Anil Srivatsa from pursuing his life’s mission to promote global awareness for organ donation and break the taboo surrounding it. Flagged off at the Houston Rotary convention by then RI president Shekhar Mehta in June, in the presence of RIPE Gordon McInally and RI directors Mahesh Kotbagi and A S Venkatesh, he is now proceeding to Melbourne to be at the Rotary convention in May 2023.
Srivatsa (54), is a kidney donor and charter president of RC Organ Donation, RID 3232, sponsored by RC Madras. He has been on the road for seven years now, and has driven across 48 countries, gathering support for organ donation. In Sept 2014, he donated one of his kidneys to his brother Arjun Srivatsa, a neurosurgeon, and that triggered his passion to promote the cause. “My brother was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. One day he casually asked me, hey, if I need a kidney, will you give it to me? I said okay. Initially it was a spontaneous response. But when I knew that I had to do it during that very year I panicked,” he said, speaking to Rotary News from El Salvador where he had halted.
My work may give somebody, alive or dead, a second chance to live. The most important thing that it does for me is it reinstates the faith in love.
Back then, he was trekking in Kashmir when his father informed him that his brother had just gone into dialysis. “That was my wake-up call and I finally got ready to give a kidney to him. Having my family’s support gave me the courage to do it. When I woke up from the transplant surgery, he was the first person I saw on the bed across. We didn’t say much, but the thumbs up we exchanged was enough to say that together we made it. Three weeks after the surgery he was back to saving lives doing his job as a neurosurgeon. His was the best life I could have saved.”
Energised by the transplant’s success Srivatsa launched the ‘Gift of Life Adventure (GOLA) Drive — the Million Donor project’ to get a million people from around the world to sign up for organ donation. In April 2016, he embarked on the first leg of what he calls “the long road to organ donor awareness” when the family comprising his wife Deepali and children Kavya and Soorya, and three of his friends drove from Bengaluru to Scotland, crossing 17 countries. Deepali was the timekeeper and navigator, while his daughter updated his social media pages with stories about the expedition and his son was his general assistant. “A modified Toyota Fortuner and another custom-made SUV were equipped with toolkits to tackle emergencies and we got trained in the basics of car mechanics before we set off on our mission,” said Srivatsa, adding that the journey was filled with incidents good and bad, and “they were our best life lessons”.
He started this expedition when he learnt about the fear among people when it comes to donating an organ. “I want to destroy the fear that comes in the way of donating organs. Fear comes from ignorance, superstition, misplaced religious beliefs… it comes from lack of love. Organ donation is an act of love, and when there is no love, there is nothing that can make you do it. The best way is to speak to the family because legally their consent is necessary if you want to donate the organ.”
He has visited 20 countries in the second leg, and covered Italy, China, Norway, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Dubai and Oman in the third.
Convention to convention
Now on the fourth leg, Srivatsa is on a 56,000km-ride, crossing 17 countries before reaching Perth, Australia, to represent India in throwball and swimming at the World Transplant Games (WTG) to be held in April 2023. He’ll complete the journey at the Rotary convention in Melbourne. He won a gold medal in throwball competition at the 2019 WTG in New Castle where he had also participated in the 100m race. His brother who had won a gold in golf then will also be participating this year.
WTG is like the Olympic Games, but for the organ recipients and donors, similar to the paralympics for the differently-abled. It is conducted by the WTG Federation where 60 nations participate. “This is basically to highlight the quality of life, post-transplant. A living organ donor who is an athlete is the best inspiration for the cause. Nothing is more powerful than that to inspire people to donate organs to save someone’s life,” says this Bengaluru-based campaigner. He is the CEO and co-founder of Radiowalla Network, and former CEO of Kings XI Punjab.
Uniting Rotary for the cause
From Houston Srivatsa drove to Alaska and Argentina, addressing Rotary clubs along the way. “I want to unite Rotarians around the world to pay more attention to organ donation and work towards a time where no one dies waiting for an organ. Just like how we worked together in eradicating polio.” He has committed to speak to 100 Rotary clubs to promote the cause, having addressed over 250 clubs in his earlier expeditions. “I achieved that goal when I was invited to speak at RC San Pedro Sula in Honduras.” Here he inducted the city’s only transplant surgeon Dr Roberto to RC Organ Donation. The club was chartered with 26 members from six countries and Srivatsa has been inducting activists, doctors, nephrologists and transplant surgeons to his club through this journey. “In the last two weeks we have added five members including actress Revathi who is passionate about the cause.” The film Salaam Venky directed by her is about organ donation and is to be screened as a fundraiser in RID 3232, he added.
His wife Deepali joins him in the journey wherever she can. The couple lives in the vehicle and also cook outside it for much of the journey to save money. He is using three vehicles on this expedition, based on the terrain.
In August, the GOLA team participated in the India Day Parade at Edison, NJ, “where our overland truck was the Float showcasing organ donation messages. We also threw some T-shirts into the crowd and got their attention to speak to them about it.”
On Feb 2, RIPN Stephanie Urchick will be addressing his club online to discuss “her plans as president and how Rotary can play a part in uniting for organ donation.” A GG application is underway for his club to undertake the ‘Lift up Project’ that aims to support 100 women and children who have a sanctioned legal donor but do not have the means to undergo the surgery.
The most common question he is asked during his expedition is: What happens to the donor after donation? — or the more superstitious one — whether the donor will end up losing the same organ in the next life. “I stop at schools and colleges because spreading awareness among the young generation is very important,” he said. He has addressed people during the Ganga aarti in Rishikesh, and had held a session for the Indian Army in the Kashmir valley. “It is difficult to get people to sign up. After death, only the relatives can take any decision on donating organs and this can only be done if the donor has communicated his decision to them during his lifetime,” he said. Even if someone has signed up with a donor bank, in many cases the death is never reported to the bank, he adds.
“My work may give somebody, alive or dead, a second chance to live. The most important thing that it does for me is it reinstates the faith in love. Had it not been for love it wouldn’t have been possible for me. I want to tell the world how one can live a fulfilling life,” he said, on a reflective note.
The Srivatsa brothers are beneficiaries of Rotary’s Youth Exchange programme, and hail from a family of Rotarians. His mother is a former Rotarian and brother Dr Arjun is a member of RC Bangalore. “My great grandfather was president of RC Hyderabad Deccan,” he said.