Montreal Ethiopian Jew Battles for Kidney Donation

Baruch Tegegne, the man credited with rescuing untold numbers of his fellow Ethiopian Jews, is now in a fight for his own life. Tegegne, 61, needs a kidney transplant and a group of his friends, led by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, thought they had found one, from a man in India, through a website that connects live persons willing to donate an organ – without compensation – to strangers. The Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), the leading Montreal transplant centre, refuses to conduct transplants under such circumstances, for both ethical and practical reasons. The buying and selling of organs is illegal in Canada, but there is no law explictly prohibiting so-called “altruistic” donations from unrelated persons.

Last week Tegegne’s lawyer, Michael Bergman, launched what he called precedent-setting legal action against the RVH, part of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). In a letter to RVH director general Timothy Meagher, Bergman states that the hospital’s refusal to “even consider” testing the potential donor for his compatibility, let alone perform the transplant, endangers Tegegne’s life and, thereby, his rights under the Canadian and Quebec charters. Bergman also says it violates the right to medical treatment under the Canada Health Act and Quebec health- care legislation, as well as the medical profession’s Hippocratic oath. If the RVH does not act “within a reasonable delay,” the letter states that Bergman will seek a court order to force it to do so. MUHC spokesperson Seeta Ramdass said the hospital is making no comment now that the matter is the subject of legal action. In February, Dr. Douglas Keith, head of the RVH’s living donor transplant program, was quoted in the National Post as saying the hospital has never performed a transplant between strangers as a result of an altruistic donation. He said the RVH could not be sure there is no “quid pro quo” agreement between Tegegne and the potential donor, and that it looks suspicious because the latter is from the Third World and the contact was made via the Internet.

Tegegne, who undergoes dialysis four times a week at the Jewish General Hospital, has been waiting for a transplant for more than two years and his health is said to be deteriorating. None of his seven brothers in Israel are able to donate a kidney, he said at a media conference where the legal action was announced. Speaking softly and looking somewhat frail, Tegegne said: “I want to live like everybody… When the donor in India was found, I was so happy – I thought I would have another life.” Tegegne, a pioneer of the Ethiopian Jewish aliyah movement, moved to Montreal 1979 and is believed to be the first Ethiopian Jew to settle in Canada. His dramatic escape by foot from Ethiopia in 1974 to get to Israel and his activism in persuading the Israeli government to rescue the little-known Jews of Ethiopia was featured in Jacobovici’s 1983 documentary Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews. Tegegne has spent much of the past 20 years working among the Ethiopian community in Africa and Israel. Jacobovici, also at the conference, called Tegegne “a hero who has saved hundreds, if not thousands, from the refugee camps in war-torn Ethiopia.”

Jacobovici paid a $441 (US) fee to advertise Tegegne’s request for a kidney on www.matchingdonors.com for three months. It was answered by a 30-year-old Indian man, Shree Dhar, who participated in the conference by telephone hook-up. Jacobovici said he, and other friends of Tegegne, will pay for Dhar’s travel expenses to Canada, as well as a “reasonable” amount to compensate him for lost wages during his recovery. Speaking in an English that was not always clear, Dhar repeated that his “motives are pure,” that he is not looking for money, beyond his costs, or to immigrate to Canada. Married and the father of two, he said he made 9,500 rupees a month as an investment consultant, and described his circumstances as middle class. He said he is motivated by religious conviction – he is Hindu – and was touched by Tegegne’s story of his often risky work among Ethiopian Jews. He also said his grandfather, an army general, died of kidney disease.

Asked why he has not donated a kidney to someone in India, Dhar said he and his wife are registered with an Indian organ bank, but he would have to pay part of his medical costs in India. He also feels the level of health care is higher in Canada. He said he understands the risks of having a kidney removed from speaking to a nephrologist in his area of southern India. “I believe God will be with me,” he said. Jacobovici accused the RVH of “obstructing compassion” and of “arrogance, paranoia and a bit of racism” because, he says, it assumes that anyone donating kidney, especially if they are from the Third World, are doing it for the money and not for noble reasons. He doubts any policy exists, and the RVH is “just making one up as it goes along.” Jacobovici said a donor’s word that he is not going to take compensation for an organ should be enough for a hospital and, if not, an affadavit could be drawn up. In this case, he said Dhar is “totally credible,” a point Bergman agreed upon.

Bergman and Jacobovici refuted suggestions that, if a Canadian hospital accepts Dhar’s donation, Tegegne is “jumping the queue” because he has the advantage of a lawyer and the public advocacy of a well-known filmmaker. On the contrary, they say that if the legal action is successful, it will benefit everyone by changing the way organ donations are managed in Canada. “There’s an unwritten policy in Canada that, other than family members, no one can donate a kidney to anyone else” to avoid the chance that the organ was actually purchased, said Jacobovici. “In other words, they treat live donors as guilty until proven innocent. On the off chance that a bad apple may slip through the system, compassion is obstructed and thousands of Canadians are left to die.” Bergman and Jacobovici say about 3,000 Canadians are on the kidney transplant waiting list, and on average 200 die each year before an organ is available.”I believe I am opening doors for others,” Tegegne added.

Also participating by conference call was Dr. Robert Hickey, a Canadian living in the United States, who recently underwent the transplant of a kidney donated by a young American man with whom he made contact through www.matchingdonors.com. The operation was done at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Centre in Denver after its clinical ethics committee approved the arrangement. Hickey said he has made inquiries with British Columbia’s transplant authority and St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver to see if it will undertake to test Dhar and perform the transplant if he is found compatible.

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