Campaign launched for Tegegne’s transplant in Israel

An Israeli hospital has agreed to perform a life-saving kidney transplant for Baruch Tegegne of Montreal using an organ donated – free of charge – by an Indian man. That’s the good news. The bad news is that $120,000 (US) must be raised to cover the total costs, says Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto-based filmmaker who has been advocating on behalf of Tegegne, an Ethiopian Jew. The hospital, Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, has agreed in writing to do the surgery for a fee of $70,000, which Jacobovici calls “very discounted… It normally charges $100,000. That’s because of Baruch’s role in helping Ethiopian Jewry.” However, when travel costs, dialysis for Tegegne, and accommodations, care and other expenses are factored in, at least another $50,000 is needed, Jacobovici said.

In March, the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) said it would not do the transplant for Tegegne, 61, because the prospective live donor is not related to him, and is, in fact, a stranger. There is no way of verifying whether or not payment would change hands, and buying and selling organs is illegal in Canada. Thirty-year-old Shree Dhar said he will accept no compensation for the donation, other than covering his expenses and the time he loses from making a living. The RVH said it has never performed a transplant using an “altruistic” donation and, moreover, it has concerns because Dhar was found through the Internet and is from a Third World country. Jacobovici has been unable so far to find another Canadian hospital willing to do the transplant. He found Dhar by placing an ad on Tegegne’s behalf on www.matchingdonors.com, a site that matches persons willing to give an organ without personal benefit to those in need.

Tegegne, who is hailed as a hero of the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, has advanced kidney disease as a complication of diabetes. He has been on the RVH’s kidney transplant waiting list for a year and undergoes dialysis four times a week at the Jewish General Hospital. Jacobovici believes Quebec medicare should at least pay for Tegegne’s post-operative care on the grounds that he was forced to go elsewhere for a procedure not available here. Although Tegegne has Israeli citizenship, he is not eligible for the national health program because he has not been paying into it, Jacobovici said.

A number of American hospitals are also willing to do the transplant using Dhar’s kidney, but they asked from $200,000 to $300,000 for the operation alone, Jacobovici said. Having the operation in Israel is preferable, in any case, because Tegegne has a support system of friends and family there. “Time is of the essence,” he stressed. “I’m very worried about him. He has better weeks and worse weeks, but this campaign has given him hope. He feels he’s not alone.”

Rambam, founded in 1938 as a British military hospital, is one of Israel’s five major hospitals. Today it is a teaching hospital affiliated with the Technion, and treats many non-Israelis including thousands of citizens of southern Lebanon and United Nations peacekeeping forces. The Toronto-based Canadian Friends of Rambam Medical Centre has set up a fund specifically to collect donations to enable Tegegne to have the transplant, and tax receipts will be issued, Jacobovici said.

The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has so far raised $20,000, Jacobovici said, which is remarkable given they are generally “low on the economic totem pole.” Another $20,000 approximately, has been pledged in the United States through the Sha’arei Dayah Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., much of it coming from those who are aware of Tegegne’s role in the Ethiopian Jewish struggle. The foundation has created a website (www.TransplantNow.org) to publicize Tegegne’s plight. His dramatic story was told in Jacobovici’s 1983 documentary Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews.

Tegegne is credited with rescuing hundreds of his fellow Ethiopian Jews from famine and in their flight to Israel. In the 1950s, Tegegne was brought to Israel as a child by the government, and educated at the Mizrachi AMIT schools. He returned to Ethiopia as a young adult to work among his people. This activism got him in trouble with the authorities and, in 1974, he escaped the country by walking across Sudan, eventually returning to Israel. Tegegne later was involved in the covert Operation Moses in 1984, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Sudan. In 1979, he married a Montreal woman he met in Israel, and moved to this city, although he has spent many of the intervening years in Israel.

Jacobovici said Tegegne’s legal challenge against the RVH is still being pursued, and expects it to go to court “in the next few weeks.” In March, Tegegne’s lawyer Michael Bergman, launched what he called a precedent-setting action against the RVH, which is part of the McGill University Health Centre. In a letter to RVH director-general Dr. Timothy Meagher, Bergman argued that the hospital’s refusal of the transplant endangers Tegegne’s life and, thereby, his rights under the Canadian and Quebec charters, as well as the Canada Health Act, Quebec health-care legislation and the medical profession’s Hippocratic oath. Since then, Bergman has received written confirmation from the RVH that it will not perform the transplant because it would violate the medical profession’s code of ethics concerning organ transplants. But Bergman rejects this as “absurd and completely without merit because no money is exchanging hands… It’s the ultimate charitable act.” Bergman maintains that the code referred to has no statutory or regulatory weight. Jacobovici said that, in addition to pressing for Tegegne’s rights, it is hoped a court will clarify whether hospitals can arbitrarily refuse a donor simply because they are not a relative, are from another country, or were found through the Internet.

For information on the Tegegne fund of the Canadian Friends of Rambam Medical Centre, call Nicole at 416-504-6662, ext. 229, or e-mail: naustin@apltd.ca.

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