Even in death, he stuck to his mission

A man of heart

Even in death, he stuck to his mission

He knew no fear. His passion was to take cardiac surgery, more ambitiously heart transplants to needy patients in Tamil Nadu’s rural hinterland, to see that “every heart beats healthily”. Fired by a noble cause, the bubbly, gifted cardiac surgeon, Dr Krishnagopal, with hundreds of successful heart surgeries to his credit in just 39 years, was firm to set up the first heart transplant unit in rural Madurai.

Yet, the tragic irony about Dr Krishnagopal’s life was that his own heart was the first to be donated to a Pune man from that rural cardiac surgery unit he had built from ‘empty floor’, thus launching- over his own body-, the heart transplant unit which he worked so hard to establish.  After a “freak accident” on December 26, 2009, Dr Krishnagopal after a few days was declared ‘brain dead’. This dramatic twist is best captured by varying a line from the 17th Century English poet Michael Drayton: “he could not lift his head out of the winter’s wave.”

Within hours, even before the earth's bosom took his body, a new spring ensued as Dr Krishnagopal’s heart began to beat again in a 21-year-old male student waiting to receive a heart. In a high precision transplant, the internationally renowned cardiologist, Dr K M Cherian, performed the surgery at his ‘Frontier Lifeline’ hospital in Chennai, nearly 500 km from Madurai.

And the person who instantly with fortitude took the decision to donate Dr Krishnagopal’s heart after his ‘brain death’ was confirmed in the very ICU he had set up for the cardiac surgery unit at the ‘Vadamalayan Hospital’ in rural Madurai, was none other than his young wife, Priya Gopal.

Dr Krishnagopal was then “actually preparing the hospital to do heart transplants”.  However, Dr Krishnagopal was keen to take this facility to interiors of Tamil Nadu, so that “people there who had difficulty traveling to Chennai, staying there and all the costs involved would have an easier time here (Madurai),” explained Priya, as tears welled up her grief-stricken eyes and her voice choked with emotion as she almost broke down.

“At that point of time, we were planning for a December vacation and our children - Tejashwin (13) and Sharanya(10) - were supposed to come from Singapore, where they were staying with their grand parents, the next day. I was going to follow two days later, but we got a call that he had an accident,” said Priya told Deccan Herald in Chennai.

 “I immediately flew over (from Chennai where she works for Dr Cherian as a hospital management specialist) to Madurai to find him in the ICU,” Priya reminisced of that horrific, tectonic shift in her life. “I could only see how perfectly the ICU was run only when he was in the ICU,” she sobbed as those vivid images passed her mind.

Priya was even accurate to the dot that he was the “400th person to be admitted to the ICU”, since her husband had made the independent cardiac surgery unit at Vadamayalan hospital operational on the auspicious occasion of Adi Perukku in August 2007.

After struggling for three or four days, there was no brain activity and “we had to ascertain his brain death”. On December 31 last, “he was declared brain dead”.  As Dr Krishnagopal lay ‘brain dead’ on the ICU bed, “I intimated that we would like to donate his organs.” It was then a flurry of activity that day as the team of doctors and para-medics to harvest the organs- his kidneys were also donated- flew into Madurai from Chennai.

“With clockwork precision, everything was planned. Luckily, there was a flight (to Madurai) around that time. So they (doctors from Frontier Lifeline) had to time every move, right from when the harvesting of the organs will begin, placing them in an ice-box, travel time to the airport, return flight to Chennai, and the Tamil Nadu Government helping them with a “green corridor” to enable speedy passage to carry the organs by road from the Chennai airport to Dr Cherian’s hospital where he was ready to do the heart transplant surgery on the waiting patient. All this within three hours!

It was an incredible humanitarian story. “Everything came together at the nick of time that this young boy of 21 from Pune (name withheld on request) got a fresh lease of life through my husband's heart. And he is doing very well; I am extremely pleased,” said Priya this time with tears of joy.

In fact, this rare episode of struggle and deliverance behind Priya’s calm exterior, came to the fore as she along with the recipient boy was presented as a “courageous and miraculous” case study by Dr Cherian himself, sans the details, at the recent inaugural of the 20th ‘World Congress of the World Society of Cardio Thoracic Surgeons’.

Dr Krishnagopal came from a humble rural background in Theni near Madurai. His parents - both doctors, Dr G Krishnasamy and Dr Saraswathi - who hailed from a small village near Theni, chose to serve the rural population there for more than 40 years now.

After a brilliant academic career that saw him through his basic MBBS at Madurai Medical College, MS in General Surgery in Stanley Medical College in Chennai, MCH in cardio-thoracic vascular surgery at JIPMER, Pondicherry, and then his FRCS from Glasgow, UK, Dr Krishna Gopal was initially with Dr Cherian. He then went on for further training and research at the Singapore Heart Centre where he had the unique opportunity to practice both cardiac surgery and pediatric cardiac surgery, recalled Priya.

In 2006, Dr Krishnagopal came back to Chennai, but he somehow felt “a calling” to go back and serve in a rural area, inspired by his parents’ ideals.   “He performed a quadruple bypass surgery on a six-year-old child; we tried to find out whether it was done anywhere else and we could find no literature. So, I can definitely say it is the first time done in India, but it could have been first in the World,” said Priya, who also hails from Theni.

“People show their appreciation to what I did. But I cannot take any credit, for I was only doing what my husband would have wanted me to do,” admitted Priya, who is passionate to take forward her husband’s medical mission.

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