Sinews stretched to the limits. The heart pumping at its maximum. The body pushed to the limits of endurance. The spotlight. The adulation. Sports—all of these. And yet more. It’s also about doing the unthinkable. Like these 15 Indian bravehearts who defied death to emerge winners in the biggest game called life. This is their story—heart-warming and awe-inspiring.
The 15 heroes participated in the World Transplant Games, held in the UK this August. Since 1978, the WTG is held every two years with the aim of showcasing the sporting skills of people with organ transplants. It is supported by the International Olympic Committee and involves representatives from over 60 countries. Kerala’s Davis Jose Kollannur, a double kidney recipient, was the first Indian to take part in these Games in 2011 in Sweden.
Close to 2,250 competed this time in 15 disciplines across 13 venues in Newcastle. From just three in 2017 to 15 athletes in 2019, India’s record turnout shows an increasing awareness towards healthy living through sports. India’s team included 11 organ recipients and three donors. Apart from badminton—an event in which UP’s kidney recipient Balveer Singh is a double gold medalist at the 2015 and 2017 WTG—India competed in cycling, road race, sprints, relays, shot put, long jump and golf.
India is a member of the WTG Federation but it does not have a national association. Ludhiana-based urologist Dr Baldev Singh Aulakh is the head of an all-India body but only just. Since it has no registration or official status, the sports ministry did not provide grants and the Indian Olympic Association was clueless about the WTG. Aulakh admits the lapses and promises to have a proper association registered in the “next few months”.
Reena Raju, Karnataka
Double heart recipient
The team manager of the Indian contingent for the World Transplant Games, Reena was born in a middle-class Christian family in Bangalore. From track and field to hockey, she was a natural athlete who also loved playing the guitar. But life turned upside down when in 2006—she was just 25—Reena was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure. “I struggled to breathe and knew life was slipping away because my leaky heart was working only at 15 per cent.” She was given a maximum of five years to live.
In 2009, Reena’s condition deteriorated. The medicines wouldn’t work and a heart transplant was the last recourse left for her. “I was given six months to live and I prayed to Jesus for a miracle,” she says. The family’s search led them to the famous cardiothoracic surgeon K.M. Cherian in Chennai. But she backed out at the last moment as she was not mentally prepared to accept an organ from a “brain-dead person”. However, time was running out and when she got a second call from the doctor, she said yes. “I surrendered to God’s plan and went for it...In three days I was walking, on the fifth day I was singing for my doctor, and after 15 days I was back in Bangalore with a new heart I call Angel,” Reena gushes.
Three months later, Reena started cycling and jogging. After six months, she participated in her first 5,000-metre race. In March 2011, she started Light A Life—a foundation for creating awareness on organ donation. Between 2013 and 2016, Reena did everything possible as a sports freak—underwater seabed walking, parasailing and even skydiving from 13,000 feet in Dubai. In 2017, Reena became the first Indian female organ recipient to participate in the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain.
But her donor heart started to malfunction again. Struck with Cardiac Allograft Vasculopathy—a condition when blood vessels narrow down and can lead to sudden death—Reena needed a second transplant. Eight years after her first transplant, Reena received her second heart in September, 2017. It was the first-ever successful repeat transplant and a record.
Amar Nath Tanwar
Haryana, Kidney recipient
He wants to climb Mt Everest and drive at the world’s most gruelling motorsport event, the Dakar Rally. Such is the passion for life of Haryana’s Amar Nath Tanwar, who received his mother’s kidney in 2012 after grappling with a damaged organ for four years. Partly sponsored by the WTG Federation and his village panchayat, Amar wants to add to his two silver medals from the 2016 Australian Transplant Games. Due to financial crunch, he missed the 2017 WTG. Apart from badminton, Amar’s events are a mixed bag—from sprints to long-distance events, relays and road race. As for fuel, he loves his paneer dishes.
Kerala, Kidney recipient
After being diagnosed with chronic renal failure, 33-year-old Vishnu Nair underwent a successful kidney transplant in 2007. The donor was his mother, who did not think twice to save her son’s life. Originally from Kerala, Vishnu lives in Delhi where he trains in the early hours to escape the pollution. It was his first time at the WTG where he competed in the 5,000-metre racewalk event. Vishnu’s deteriorating kidney has had side-effects. He suffered gradual hearing loss and underwent a Cochlear Implant—an electronic device for people profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing.
Anil Srivatsa/Arjun Srivatsa
Karnataka, Kidney donor/recipient
The made-for-each-other siblings are undoubtedly an extraordinary team. Anil, once an active cricketer, badminton player and long-distance runner, donated one of his kidneys to his brother, Arjun, in 2014. After the kidney donation, Anil, a life coach and an entrepreneur, started Gift of Life Adventure and began a worldwide drive to promote organ donation. “The main reason many people don’t opt in for becoming an organ donor is misinformation. Through our social media posts we want to bust common misconceptions associated with organ donation,” says Anil, who participated in the 100m race and ball throw. Arjun, a top neurosurgeon from Bangalore, competed in golf at the WTG. In fact, he had won a local golf tournament just three weeks after his kidney transplant. In a month, he was back to doing 14-hour shifts in the hospital. Six months post-transplant, he took a cycling trip to Spain. For the two brothers, this is their first WTG.
Madhya Pradesh, Liver donor
If there was a heptathlon event at the World Transplant Games, Bhopal’s Ankita Shrivastava would have been a top medal contender. From sprints to scuba diving and from road race to bungee jumping, Ankita is a complete athlete despite gifting 74 per cent of her liver to her mother at the age of 21 in 2014. India’s youngest liver donor was consigned to a wheelchair after the operation and the additional trauma of losing her mother despite the transplant did not deter her from sports. It took her just 12 months to return to training which she did with focus and determination to try and win a medal at the WTG. Ankita trained on the Sports Authority of India campus for three hours a day, four days a week. Her intense training included a regime of jumps, throws and sprints. Participating in her maiden WTG, she competed in several events—road race, long jump, ball throw and 1,000m race. At the age of 19, she also wrote a novel. At the same time, she was winning medals in college. But, she says, the happiest moment was when she gifted a large chunk of her liver to her mother.
Uttar Pradesh, Kidney recipient
No Indian shuttler has back-to-back gold medals in a world event, a feat achieved by Lucknow’s Balveer Singh, probably the most decorated Indian at the 2019 World Transplant Games in UK. Now pushing 40, Balveer underwent a kidney transplant in 2011 but took to badminton to regain fitness and overcome the emotional stress. “Society is not very kind to people who undergo transplants. Are we really weak? We can’t be treated like spent force on borrowed life,” says a philosophical Balveer, who feels sports is the best way to prove oneself. Despite financial pressure, Balveer participated in the 2015 Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina. He teamed up with fellow UP badminton player Dhamendra Soti (kidney recipient) to win the doubles gold. Balveer won the singles gold in the 2017 WTG in Malaga, Spain. Success breeds success. It was true for Balveer too. He spends over Rs 6,000 on medicines per month and naturally, was stretched to organise funds. But this time he got support. The Light A Life foundation and Rambus Chip Technologies made his trip to the UK possible.
Maharashtra, Kidney recipient
His must be the most fascinating love story in the world of organ donors. He met his would-be wife while both were on dialysis and waiting for donors for kidney transplantation in 2006. Kishore Suryawanshi works with an advertisement agency in Jalgaon while Aarti Kashikar is from Madhya Pradesh. Kishore received his kidney from his sister. Aarti got it from her mother. Kishore is a sprint specialist and this was his maiden WTG. He was partly sponsored by the world body. Kishore also runs an NGO—Chaya Kidney Foundation—with his wife to counsel people on transplantation.
Madhya Pradesh, Kidney recipient
In the world of organ transplant in India, Digvijay Gujral is the Arnold Schwarzenegger. Professional bodybuilding and organ deformity are two things common between Jabalpur’s Digvijay Gujral and the Terminator hero. While Schwarzenegger was born with a faulty aortic valve in the heart, Digvijay was diagnosed with a non-functional right kidney when he was just one. Later it was found that Digvijay’s left kidney was also damaged. In 2011, after three months of dialysis, he underwent a kidney transplant. His lifestyle changed after the transplant, as he started working on his muscles. In his first WTG, he participated in squash, badminton, relay and shot put.
Haryana, Heart recipient
A 26-year-old donor gave Gurgaon’s Karhun Nanda a new life in November 2016. A footballer, Nanda runs a small software company and his good looks betray the fact that he was left debilitated by a severe heart attack in December 2015. Left in coma, he needed an emergency stent surgery, but that was not enough to prevent a heart transplant. Nanda was lucky to get one without waiting for long in a Chennai hospital. A heart transplant patient generally lives for 10 years. A transplant leads to additional challenges because the brain can no more read the rate at which the heart beats. One has to control that manually and a wrong calculation can be disastrous. Nanda wants to live and more importantly, wants to raise awareness on organ donation. “I am blessed that someone gave up his life to make me live. I am humbled.” Nanda advises a definite need for work-life balance. “I was travelling 25 days a month and there was no life,” he says. He took to golf to play a long game with low cardio impact. The sport has helped Nanda keep in touch with sports and this was his first World Transplant Games. For Gurgaon’s Warrior Prince, wearing the tricolour has been a dream fulfilled.
Davis Jose Kollannur
Kerala, Double kidney recipient/cancer survivor
India’s top shuttlers eyeing glory at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo need not look further than 51-year-old Davis Jose Kollannur for inspiration. The 2019 World Transplant Games is the third for this Thrissur man who never gave up his romance with badminton despite two kidney transplants and a brush with leukaemia. Davis struck silver medals in the 2011 and 2013 Games in Goteborg (Sweden) and Durban, respectively. In 2014, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and that scuppered his hopes for a hattrick of WTG medals in badminton. Once a cashier with a fashion house in Saudi Arabia, Davis survived death not once but thrice. After hypertension led to damage of both his kidneys, he had to return to Kerala for his first transplant in August 2001. This is when his inspiring story starts. To counter weight gain due to a passive lifestyle, Davis went back to badminton three months after surgery. His training fetched golden returns as he won gold in the unofficial national transplant games in 2003 and won a second in the 2006 edition. He also even won medals in athletics. Davis was one of the four Indians at the 2011 WTG. But his life went off track after the WTG in South Africa. Chemotherapy for his cancer also affected his transplanted kidney. Davis braved a second kidney transplant in January 2016. In March next year, he was back on the badminton court.
Chennai, Liver recipient
Fifty-five-year-old Raghavendra Nagaraj is the senior-most member of the Indian contingent at the 2019 WTG, his first. He was first diagnosed with a liver problem in 2010 but didn’t need a transplant. It was only when his health started going downhill, he got a liver after seven months on the waiting list in Chennai. Life turned for the better as Raghavendra became more fitness conscious—walking, squatting and even doing light weights in the gym. After training hard for a year, to compete in a 5km walk or a 1,500m race is no big deal. But his real intention of competing, he says, is to inspire the doctors treating him for years.
Praveen Kumar Rattan/Roopa Arora
Chandigarh, Liver recipient/donor
If there is ever a ‘perfect couple’ award in the history of organ transplant in India, Praveen and Roopa from Chandigarh will be a top contender for the title. Praveen, an accounts officer in Chandigarh, received the gift of life in 2011 when his wife Roopa donated 65 per cent of her liver to save him. Roopa, a school teacher, was only 36 when she was confronted with the biggest challenge of her life. Once Praveen was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease and Roopa’s organ matched, there was no turning back. In 2014, they were blessed with a son. “Earlier, we were struggling to save one life, but now we have bigger reasons to live,” says Roopa. As a thanksgiving, the duo runs a foundation to promote the cause of organ donation. It was their first time at the WTG but they had prior international ‘experience’ by becoming the first Indians to participate in the Transplant Games of America in August 2018. Praveen took part in 100m and 5,000m walk, 10,000-metre cycling time trial, ball throw and discus (recipient category) in the UK. Roopa competed in ball throw, 100m and long jump (donor category). “It’s quite an experience to run a race with my wife’s body part,” says Praveen, for whom Roopa “will always be my hero”.
Karnataka, Kidney recipient
Sridhar is a Karnataka-based IT professional in his 40s. Crippled by chronic kidney failure, he underwent a transplant in 2017 when his mother came forward to donate one of her kidneys. Sridhar has always been a sportsman and after the operation his urge to lead a normal life has only increased. He plays badminton to stay fit and excels in table tennis. He has won medals at national and state-level games organised by different organisations. At his maiden WTG, Sridhar donned India colours in the two racquet sports.