SINGAPORE – Donating one’s organ to a stranger is an extraordinary act of generosity, but two brothers who did so think nothing of it.
Mr Lin Hanwei, 35, and his younger brother Dilun are Singapore’s first living donors from the same family to donate to complete strangers.
In May, Mr Lin donated a part of his liver to Mr Eddie Tan, whose end-stage liver disease prompted his son to post an appeal on social media.
And seven years ago in 2012, younger brother Dilun, then 27, gave his kidney to six-year-old Bryan Liu after reading about the boy’s daily struggles in The New Paper.
His selfless act made him the first person to donate his kidney to a complete stranger here.
Mr Lin said he was inspired by what his younger brother did.
“I don’t think I’m a kind and compassionate person, but what he did made me question if I could go through with donating my organ too,” said the financial services director.
What made his decision easier was the compressed timeline, Mr Lin said.
Within five days of reading Mr Tan’s appeal, he had volunteered to be a donor, passed the tests, gotten the Transplant Ethics Committee’s approval, and was out of the operating theatre after a successful transplant.
“I knew that I was in good hands, I wouldn’t die or have long-term damage,” he said.
Doctors had screened 25 to 30 people, and only Mr Lin and two others were found to be suitable.
But the two backed out at the last minute due to their own concerns and family objections, leaving Mr Lin to step in to save Mr Tan from slipping into a possible coma, said Associate Professor Alfred Kow from the National University Centre for Organ Transplantation (NUCOT).
Mr Tan’s medical situation was so urgent that doctors got approval from the Transplant Ethics Committee to waive the week-long mandatory cooling-off period for donors so that the operation could start immediately, added Prof Kow.
The transplant took 5½ hours and was a success.
Mr Lin also made an exceptionally speedy recovery. He left the hospital just five days later with a 7-inch by 5-inch scar on his torso, and was back to normal two weeks later.
“I went to eat a hotel buffet and had diarrhoea; I think my body was not used to it,” he recalled with a laugh.
Mr Tan’s wife and children visited him in the hospital three days after the operation.
“There was a lot of gratefulness; they kept telling me that words could not express (how they felt),” he said, adding that they made plans to meet up when Mr Tan is better.
Mr Lin has to go back to the National University Hospital (NUH) for yearly check-ups.
The 20-year survival rate of liver transplant patients from NUCOT stands at 80 per cent, said Prof Kow.
The knowledge that donating one of their organs would ultimately save someone’s life, and the high standard of medical care in Singapore were two important factors in the brothers’ decision to be living donors.
Prof Kow said that in Mr Lin’s case, doctors made sure to leave 5 per cent to 10 per cent more of his liver compared to surgery to remove a liver tumour, to ensure his safety.
The brothers also have supportive family and friends.
Though their mother had at first objected to Dilun donating his kidney, she was assured after seeing him recover well after the operation.
So when her older son decided to also be a donor, she did not raise any objections.
The first case of a non-related liver donor here was in 2013. Since then, there have been only 20 other cases, including Mr Lin’s – making up 10 per cent of all living liver donors in NUCOT, said Prof Kow.
Of the 20 donors, 14 had stepped forward as a result of appeals through social media.
“It may be coinciding with some of our organ donation awareness efforts and with the maturity of the techniques of how we care for our patients, increasingly, more people are aware that it’s actually safe,” he added.
For Dilun, now 34, the chance to help Bryan – born with only one kidney that failed when he was two – was something he could not pass up.
“I felt it was tragic for him to live his childhood that way,” he said, adding that he does not feel the loss of a kidney.
Dilun, who is getting married in October, has kept in touch with Bryan, now in Secondary 2, and his family.
They meet about five to six times a year to celebrate occasions such as Chinese New Year, Christmas, and, of course, the date of the transplantation.
“A lot of people, when they find out that I’m a kidney donor, ask me, ‘What do you lose?’ but not many ask me what I gained,” said Dilun, who is in between jobs.
“In a very beautiful way, I’ve gained a family that has been so warm towards me.”