SINGAPORE — The Lin brothers not only share a love for football, they also recently made Singapore's medical history as the first pair of siblings to have donated their organs to complete strangers while alive.
In May, Lin Hanwei, 36, a financial services director with AXA Insurance, had donated part of his liver to a fellow Singaporean after chancing upon a plea on Facebook.
Seven years earlier, Hanwei’s younger brother, Dilun, now 34, had also donated his kidney to a complete stranger - a seven-year-old boy - at the same hospital.
It was the first instance of a kidney donation from a living donor unrelated to the recipient by family links in Singapore.
“My brother, ever since he donated his kidney, always made me think if I could (do the same),” said Hanwei at a media session held at the National University Health System (NUHS) Tower Block on Thursday (11 July).
“It was a lot easier for me to make a call because I know I will be fine - and the same goes for my family as well. So making this decision was, I think, not as difficult when my brother made his,” he added.
When Hanwei, together with Dilun, attended a pre-op consultation with associate professor Alfred Kow, who performed the donor surgery on the former at the National University Hospital (NUH)’s National University Centre for Organ Transplantation (NUCOT), they even asked if they each could donate more organs: a kidney from Hanwei, and part of a liver from Dilun.
Their “demands” were turned down for good reason. “Ultimately, we have to safeguard the welfare of our donors,” said Prof Kow.
“So I told (my brother), never mind, you keep your liver and I keep my kidney, in case our family needs them,” quipped Hanwei, who fully recovered from his surgery after two weeks.
Both brothers brushed off any suggestion that what they did were special, and stressed their decisions were pragmatic: if the benefits for the recipients far outweighed the short-term inconveniences they had to face and resulted in no long-term damage, it was an easy decision for the duo to make.
“I think we are still very ordinary people,” said Hanwei. “Some people donate blood, some people donate money, this is just a bit more complicated.”
But to their mother, Serene Neo, it was not quite as simple - at first.
When she heard about Dilun’s decision to donate his kidney, the first thoughts that came to the 54-year-old clinic assistant’s mind was that it was a “very reckless” and “crazy” act, and something she could not easily accept.
“But after he explained further that he could save someone’s else life, I accepted it easily,” said Neo in Mandarin.
“If my sons needed a liver or a kidney, I would also need donors to step forward.”
NUH’s NUCOT co-director Professor A Vathsala said she would have tipped her hat off to the brothers if “she had one”.
“Organ donation should be an ordinary act. It should be an everyday act that everyone of us should think about,” she stressed.
A total of 64 living donor organ transplants were performed in Singapore last year, of which 21 were liver transplants, according to the Ministry of Health’s Live On website, an online resource for organ donations. Deceased donors accounted for 19 liver transplants.
Last year, 446 patients in Singapore were on the waiting list for organ transplants, of which the top three were for kidneys (314), corneas (59) and livers (58).
Recipient’s family deeply grateful to donor
Hanwei was the 14th, out of 20, liver donors who donated them after chancing upon a plea on social media or media reports since 2013, a “sharp increase in the last 10 years”, said Prof Kow.
Hanwei had read a Facebook post, dated 22 May, containing an urgent request by 24-year-old Leslie Tan: his father, Eddie Tan, 59, a former project manager, was critically ill and needed a suitable liver donor within a week to ensure a best chance of survival.
Hanwei first shared the post, but a day later thought of stepping forward to donate part of his liver. He was not alone: over 50 people had volunteered.
Fortunately, Hanwei was later found to be a suitable match – a one in three chance among potential donors. Two other prospective donors had backed out at the last minute due to reasons such as objections from family members and their own concerns, said Prof Kow.
All prospective donors have to go through a series of blood tests and scans to ensure that they are physically healthy and will not be harmed through the act of donation.
They have to attend a mandatory counselling session and be evaluated by an independent transplant ethics committee, which will decide if a transplant can take place.
As the elder Tan’s case was critical, the “cooling period” was waived.
On 30 May, eight days after the appeal on Facebook was posted, Hanwei underwent a five-and-a-half hour operation to remove part of his liver at the NUH’s NUCOT, where the elder Tan was separately operated for eight hours for the transplant.
Like Hanwei, Dilun had chanced upon the story of Bryan Liu, a young boy who was born with one kidney, in 2010.
Liu’s kidney failed completely when he was two. Because of a rare viral condition, a transplanted kidney from his mother had later too failed and was removed.
In July 2012, after interviews and medical tests lasting over a year, Dilun went through a four-hour operation to donate his kidney.
Both brothers have been in contact with their recipients after the operation - for Dilun, he meets up with Bryan, now a healthy secondary two student, about five to six times a year.
“We meet regularly - we visit each other families for Chinese New Years, their birthdays (Bryan is part of a set of twins) are on Christmas Eve, so we see each other on Christmas,” said Dilun, who is currently in between jobs.
“We try to meet on or around the anniversary of the operation, which is actually coming up later this month. It is kind of like a second birthday (for Bryan). His family regards it as his rebirth for him,” he added.
As for Hanwei, the elder Tan’s wife and children came to see him three days after the operation.
Her first words to him were “救命恩人” (benefactor in English), repeated “many, many” times, he said. The elder Tan and his son had also texted him expressing their gratitude.
Hanwei and the Tan family plan to meet up in the near future when the elder Tan is feeling better.
“I know for a fact that I did a good deed, but I don’t think I can ever feel the impact that (the donation) has for them,” he said.