A 57-year-old terminal heart patient named David Bennet, last week received a genetically modified pig heart transplant in a first-of-its-kind surgery in the USA. The successful eight-hour surgery has been dubbed historic for it has given a new lease of life for patients across the world, waiting for a human heart to lead normal lives. While the achievement is commendable, it showcases how the true pioneers of discoveries and inventions are often forgotten.
Twenty-five years ago, India’s Dr. Dhaniram Baruah along with his assistant surgeon from Hong Kong, Dr. Jonathan Ho Kei-Shing, had performed a similar operation. Dr. Baruah had transplanted a pig’s heart and a liver on a 32-year-old man at the Dr. Dhani Ram Baruah Heart Institute & Research Centre at Sonapur in the outskirts of Guwahati. The patient had a ventricular septal defect or hole in the heart.
Dr. Dhaniram Baruah was admonished
The entire surgical process lasted well over 15 hours and the patient survived. Although the patient died of other co-morbidities and infections a week later, the achievement was path-breaking, as well as monumental. However, instead of celebrating Dr. Baruah’s feat, the then administration (Asom Gana Parishad) and the public admonished him.
Dr. Baruah’s hospital and labs were vandalized, set on fire. The Assam government conducted an inquiry into the incident and found the duo guilty of the unethical procedure. Charged with culpable homicide, the doctors were arrested and sent behind the bars for 40 days.
As it turns out, xenotransplantation or transplanting organs from one species to another was not allowed under the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994 and both Dr. Baruah and Shing paid the price for it.
Baruah was eventually released but he came back to a lab fully totalled and public sentiment, completely against him. Some locales have remarked that such was the anger against Dr. Baruah that he was forced to spend the next 18 months under house arrest.
The doctor remained under the radar
Dr. Barurah remained relatively under the radar all throughout his career afterwards. He lost his voice after undergoing brain surgery and tracheostomy following a stroke a few years ago.
Dalimi Baruah, a research associate of Dr. Baruah was quoted as saying by Indian Express, “…we can understand what he’s saying – he told us that it was likely the US doctors used the same procedure and knowledge as he had done in 1997. He has repeatedly said that pig organs can be used in humans, but no one listened to him. In fact, after he was released from jail, he found that his whole hospital was burnt down,”
The land of Sushruta and yet we treat doctors like criminals
Sushruta was an ancient Indian physician and surgeon who is known as the “Father of Surgery” and “Father of Plastic Surgery” or “father of brain surgery” for inventing and developing surgical procedures. The land that produced Sushruta also birthed a pioneer in Dr. Dhaniram Baruah.
However, the brown-skinned Indians seeking validation from the white-skinned westerners ostracized him. The political parties played their politics and a gem of a doctor was lost. Only if the government had stayed firmly by Dr Baruah’s side, the transplant technology in India could have reached levels, hitherto unseen off.