Dr Kanmani, a 24-year-old junior physician, was so overwhelmed with emotion that all she could do was hug seven-year-old Shreemali and shower her with kisses, her eyes clouded with tears. Dr Kanmani is a blood stem cell donor whose donation just a year ago had ensured that the little girl from Sri Lanka became thalassemia free.
Dr Kanmani was meeting Shreemali and her parents for the first time at a formal donor-recipient meet at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), Kochi. Shreemali’s parents were at a loss for words when they met Dr Kanmani for they knew had it not been for the young doctor, their daughter would not be alive and attending the event that day.
In the hours that followed, Shreemali struck up a good friendship with Dr Kanmani. She had stories after stories and pictures after pictures to tell and show her superhero. Shreemali trailed along with Dr Kanmani for the rest of the event. She refused to leave the side of her superhero.
Kanmani Kannan was a second-year MBBS student at AIMS in 2013 when she attended a stem cell transplantation awareness program organised jointly by DATRI Blood Stem Cell Donors Registry and the Oncology department of AIMS. Little did she know that it was the first step towards making a huge impact in the life of a seven-year-old girl from Sri Lanka who was diagnosed with thalassemia.
“I attended the program because I wanted to listen to my favourite professor Dr Neeraj. He is one person whom I admire and respect a lot. After the talks, I ended up volunteering to donate. As a second year MBBS student, I was unaware of the intricacies about stem cell transplantation. What moved me to donate was the interest instilled in me by Dr Neeraj and the love for my father. It was my father’s birthday on that day,” Dr Kanmani recollects.
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, Jayantha Balasooriya and his wife Nilmini were trying out every treatment option to save their daughter Shreemali, who was diagnosed with thalassemia in 2011 when she was just 2 months old. Nilmini gave up her job as a teacher to give full-time care to Shreemali.
Jayantha, in an act of desperation, got in touch with Eugenio La Mesa, co-founder and chairman of Cure Thalassemia based in Italy to seek help for his daughter. It was Eugenio who redirected Jayantha to Dr Sunil Bhat, a consultant and head of Paediatric Haematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation Service at Mazumdar Shaw Medical Centre at Narayana Health City, Bangalore. In 2016 the family came to India and met Dr Sunil Bhat. Soon Shreemali was registered with DATRI and waited for a donor who could save her life.
In 2017 when Kanmani was interning at AIMS she got a call from DATRI saying they had found a gene match for the donation. All she was told was that it is a six-year-old child with thalassemia. She was told neither the name nor the gender of the child. Kanmani realised what a momentous occasion this was because the possibility of finding a gene match in an unrelated donor is very rare.
“The registration card that I got in 2013 was with me all these years. I had changed my wallet numerous times, but I did not throw away that card. During my MBBS days at the Oncology department, when I saw patients suffering, I earnestly wished that someday my registration will be the source of hope for a patient,” says Dr Kanmani.
As a qualified doctor and being fully aware of the procedures in stem cell transplantation, Dr Kanmani, under the guidance of a team of doctors, started taking injections to stimulate the bone marrow to produce more number of cells.
The brother who stood by Dr Kanmani
Kanmani did not inform her parents about the donation. When they were first told about it, they had discouraged Kanmani from going ahead as they were concerned that her health would be adversely affected. So it was her brother, then a first year MBBS student at AIMS, who had signed the consent forms as the family.
Kanmani met with more problems when at the time of donation, the veins in her hands were found to be too small to draw blood. She had to be registered as an inpatient and blood was taken from her femoral vein instead. Throughout the ordeal, it was her brother who stood by her.
The morning after she was discharged, she attended her MBBS graduation convocation.
“My faculty were aware of my donation and throughout the ceremony, they kept checking on me to make sure I was all right. Rather than the two gold medals I won that day, I was beaming because I realised I had finally made the donation,” smiles Dr Kanmani.
Dr Kanmani, being aware that the success rate of stem cell transplants was low, constantly kept the child in her prayers. A year later, she was informed that the child was thalassemia free and that they could meet.
The first time meeting was an emotionally charged moment for both Dr Kanmani and Shreemali’s parents.
Shreemali’s father Jayanth says, “If Dr Kanmani had not donated her blood stem cells, my daughter’s story would have been something else. Nowadays many children with thalassemia die because they do not find the right match in stem cell donors. I came to India for treatment because at that time Sri Lanka had only sibling donor stem cell transplantation. Sri Lanka did not have unrelated donor transplantation. But now it is there.”
“We have now established an organisation in Sri Lanka called Lanka Thalassemia Circle to help patients with thalassemia. Shreemali’s disease has driven me to take charge as its secretary,” adds Jayanth.
Dr Valsraj Menon, Additional Medical Superintendent, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, says, “I am extremely supportive of such initiatives because as a medic and in leadership positions as a doctor, what is key is trying to get an impact to a wider group and that is what essentially Dr Kanmani’s desire was. What Dr Kanmani has done was a selfless act. The publicity that is happening now is a surprising by-product. That was not the intent.”
Dr Valsraj Menon elaborated on how the donor-recipient meet came to be held at AIMS.
“You see, the donor was based in Kerala, the recipient in Bangalore, transplantation was done at a leading hospital in Bangalore, DATRI is based at Chennai, so the event could have been done anywhere. But the event happened at AIMS only because of Dr Kanmani for she was sure the outreach, influence and the impact would be larger here. DATRI and AIMS came together to host the event. The overarching theme of the event was to raise awareness through inspiration. We had not only medical students, but students from diverse disciplines from the Amrita campus, including arts and sciences college, attend the event. It was, in fact, from arts and sciences students that there was a majority of donor registrations at the end of the event.”
Aby Sam John, head of DATRI Kerala, says, “Shreemali was very lucky to find a match in Dr Kanmani. There are so many patients who have been waiting for years for that life-saving donor match to have the transplant. In thalassemia, the child has to undergo blood transfusion every 14 days. It is a lot of suffering for a child to go through this. Stem cell transplant gives them a second chance at life. The public should understand this and come forward to register as donors.”
“There were so many reasons why Kanmani could have opted out of the donation or she could have pushed the donation for another day. Most people in her place would have done that. But she was very determined, and we are all very proud of her,” says Dr Neeraj Sidharthan, Head of Department Blood Stem Cell Transplant, AIMS, Kochi.
Interestingly Dr Kanmani is the first female stem cell donor in Kerala. She hopes her act will generate more interest and awareness among the public about stem cell donation.