Reena Raju – The woman who underwent ‘a change of heart’ twice!
A former hockey player, a skydiver and underwater diver, the Indian flagbearer in the World Transplant Games – even two heart transplants can’t stop Reena Raju from living life to the fullest!
By Arun Sharma
‘Where there’s a will, there is a way’ – no words can better describe the gritty spirit of Reena Raju. For, she has undergone not one but two heart transplants. ParentCircle interviewed her at the Frontier Lifeline Hospital, Chennai, only a few days post her second heart transplant. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
PC: How did you react when you were told that you needed a heart transplant?
Reena: When my doctor told me that I needed a heart transplant, I started laughing. I couldn’t believe it. I wondered if such a procedure could even be performed in India. However, I remembered hearing about it and watching a documentary. So, I asked my doctor, ‘How does it work? How do you get someone’s heart?’ And, he told me the whole process of organ donation, the concept of brain death, which I had not known about previously.
PC: What was going through your mind while you were waiting for a donor heart?
Reena: While my family registered me on the waiting list for a transplant, I secretly prayed that nobody should die for me so that I can get that person’s heart. But, I am also a very spiritual person and I believe in God’s plan. I knew that if I was going through something as big as this, there was a purpose behind it. So, when the call came for the transplant, I went with the flow – just listened to the doctors and got wheeled in.
PC: What were your first thoughts immediately after the surgery?
Reena: After the surgery, I woke up in a cubicle-like room with a nurse dressed like an astronaut beside me. The first question that came to my mind was, “Where am I?” I knew it wasn’t heaven because there was pain. And, the nurse said, “You had a heart transplant, you are doing well.” So, that was my first experience after the heart transplant. I realised that my body had made space for a heart from a donor. I also decided then that I was going to make the most of that precious heart and was going to live a full life, not just for myself but also for my donor.
PC: Your first heart transplant was a success; so, why did you need a second one?
Reena: I was not feeling well that day. I was to take an injection and come to Chennai from Bengaluru for my follow-up. However, I collapsed while taking the injection and was put on a ventilator. We couldn’t find an air ambulance that day, and had to take a road ambulance to Chennai, which is a 6-hour drive. Thrice during the journey, I told my family that I was going to collapse. I did not know if I would make it because my heart function had dropped. After I reached the hospital and got admitted to the ICU, I had my first cardiac arrest. They revived me, got my heart function to 10% and put me on an ECMO* machine. They put out a supra-alert for a donor heart and found a perfect match for me. Only after the surgery was I told that I had undergone a second heart transplant.
PC: You are just a few days out from your second heart transplant; how do you feel?
Reena: I feel I am in the forefront for repeat heart transplants in India today. I feel spiritually high because I have seen so many miracles all through. This doesn’t happen to everyone. I have died a couple of times and I have been born three times and how amazing is that. I thank my doctor, Dr KM Cherian, and his team. I am also very thankful to my donor family. I cannot say that my donor is no more, the heart is still here and, as always, I am going to do my best for the cause of organ donation.
PC: In your opinion, what kind of misconceptions do Indians have about organ donation?
Reena: There is a severe lack of awareness. Then, there is also the religious factor. There are some superstitious beliefs because of which people possibly do not want to donate organs. But, if you see, all religions support organ donation.
PC: Do you think our attitude towards organ donation is changing?
Reena: I feel that Indians are very giving, if they get to know. We have a very helpful nature. The awareness is picking up, which I am very happy about. There are more proactive donations today. People are consenting for organ donations even without having a donor card. So, we are getting there really fast.
PC: What is your message to those in need of transplant and organ recipients?
Reena: Anybody walking on a road can die, you don’t know. So, do not fear. You have had this problem, that is okay, you can make it. If I can do it, you can do it.
*ECMO: Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation - The ECMO machine oxygenates the blood, warms it to body temperature and then pumps it back into the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.
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