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'I donated my kidney to a dying stranger'

posted Dec 11, 2012, 2:09 AM by ABDUL SALEEM saleem
Uma Preman, who runs a charity that offers medical information as well as financial and moral support to patients suffering from life-threatening medical conditions in India, believes in practising what she preaches, says Tessy Koshy
  • By Tessy Koshy, Friday magazine
  • Published: 11:50 December 6, 2012
  • Uma with Salil.

Salil Kumar couldn’t believe his ears. For a moment he thought the woman, a stranger who he’d started talking to while waiting in the reception of his doctor’s clinic in Tamil Nadu, southern India, was joking when she told him, “I’ll give you my kidney”.

Sitting on the cold iron bench and sharing his life story with her, he wondered how anyone could joke about something so serious as his kidney condition. He told her that he was an orphan, that a genetic condition had affected his kidneys leaving both dysfunctional and that he was too poor to afford any more dialysis.

“I really have no option but to hope for a miracle as I’m unable to bear the pain unless someone donates a kidney to me,” the 24-year-old office boy told her. But the woman, Uma Preman, was serious, and repeated the offer. “Let’s undergo the required tests and see if mine would match,’’ she said.

“Do... do you really mean it?’’ he asked, tears welling. She nodded.

Practise what you preach

A month later, after a series of tests the transplant happened. Uma gave her left kidney and a new lease of life to the man who fell at her feet in gratitude as soon as he exited the hospital. Like her idol, Mother Teresa, 42-year-old Uma clearly believes in practising what she preaches.

Uma is a social worker who runs a charity called the Santhi Information Medical Centre ( in Kerala, southern India. The charity offers medical information and care to the poor across India at highly reduced costs.

That day, Uma had only been at the doctor’s office because she was accompanying a friend with a kidney problem for a check-up. “After I spoke to Salil the first day at the hospital, I thought to myself, ‘Now what do I do? Listen and just move on?’” Uma says.

“I felt I had to do all I could to improve his situation.” After surgery, she spent less than a week in hospital and a further month taking it easy at home before heading back to work.

“Living with one kidney has not made any difference to my life,” she says. “I still do everything that I used to but I am a bit more careful with my diet and prefer eating healthy foods and, of course, drinking adequate water.”

Today, 13 years later, Salil is an active member of the charity, spreading awareness about health issues to people. When Uma returned to her office after the transplant, she was inundated with a bizarre request from around 300 people who had heard about her incredible generosity.

“The people, all kidney patients, wanted to know if I could donate my other kidney to them. They felt I could survive on dialysis all my life. As much as I would like to help people, I am not willing to go to that great a length,’’ she chuckles.

While she can laugh about it now, Uma says the incident shed light on two important facts. The first is that there are a large number of patients with renal failure in India and the second, and most important, is that most people are largely ignorant about kidney disease. According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), by 2030 there will be 100 million people in India with diabetes, a leading cause of renal failure.

“The first thing I wanted to do was educate people about the condition and, most importantly, what they could do to prevent getting it – essentially follow a healthy lifestyle, avoid fatty foods, drink adequate water and stop smoking,’’ she says.

Help starts at home

At first Uma started off by motivating family members of patients to consider donating a kidney to save their loved ones. But she soon realised that kidney transplant is not the only solution for poor patients who couldn’t afford the cost of post operative care.

“That’s when I decided to offer free and subsidised dialysis using a mobile dialysis unit. In the beginning we charged Rs300 (Dh20) for a session, but today with escalating costs we have had to increase this amount to Rs500. Even then the cost is only a fraction of what these patients would have to pay in a hospital where it could be Rs800 to even Rs1,000 a session,” she says.

Over the years, Uma has facilitated kidney transplants for 640 patients, 62 of them are people working in the Gulf region. Around 150,000 others have received dialysis at the seven free and subsidised centres and two mobile dialysis units she runs in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These centres have 45 dialysis machines with qualified nephrologists and 58 full-time staff and technicians manning them.

The website she maintains offers contact details and treatment facilities for hundreds of hospitals not only in India, but also overseas.

“It is a valuable resource for patients who would like to know about the hospitals or clinics available in their towns. We are constantly updating the database to include more hospitals,’’ she says.

Uma does not stop at giving assistance to kidney patients. She has also helped 20,500 patients get heart surgery. Her charity has also provided mobile laboratory facilities in rural areas of Kerala and conducts regular free medical camps. Two mobile intensive-care units in Palakkad and Wayanad in Kerala help poor patients get immediate medical help.

Uma’s passion to help the poor and her work in extremely difficult conditions has earned her 37 awards from various government bodies and organisations. Notably, in 2010 she won the CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award. The award, an initiative of Delhi-based TV news channel IBN Network 18 and Reliance Foundation, acknowledges the contribution of unsung heroes in India. “That was very useful because apart from a certificate and a trophy I also received Rs700,000, which I used to buy seven dialysis machines,’’ she says.

Uma is frequently invited to address companies on the importance of following a healthy lifestyle as well as working towards helping society in some way. She has also been invited to address young people on the importance of corporate social responsibility at several educational institutions.

Although her charity is called Santhi, which means peace in Hindi, it was born out of a personal tragedy for Uma. Her husband Preman Thaikkad succumbed to multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis in 1997 in Kerala. For seven years Uma and Preman had visited several hospitals trying to find a diagnosis and a cure. It was only at the very end of his life that Preman was diagnosed correctly. Delayed detection and improper treatment methods were largely responsible for his death, she says.

“During our hospital visits we used to see scores of patients and relatives running from pillar to post in search of information or help regarding medical services and treatments.” She realised that the need of the hour was the dissemination of medical information and treatment to save lives. “My husband and I were victims of lack of information,’’ she says. “And I realised it could cut lives short.

On a mission

“So just 15 days after I became a widow, I left my six-year-old son, Nikil, with some friends and made it my mission to travel to around 100 hospitals across India to gather medical information, which I decided to share with patients and their families,” Uma says.

Her three-month journey culminated in the formation of Santhi Medical Information Centre on August 24, 1997 in Guruvayur, Kerala. The institution continues to provide medical information to more than 100 people every day via telephone, email or post about hospitals and treatments available for a variety of health conditions.

Although she is not a medical professional, Uma is familiar with a host of medical treatment procedures and medicines, which she says she learnt during meetings with doctors and nurses.

Today, she keeps abreast of the latest treatments and medicines. She also gives talks to poor people in villages about organ donation, transplants and lifestyle changes to prevent life-threatening diseases.

“According to figures I’ve been able to collect from hospitals, every day nine people are declared brain dead in road accidents in Kerala. If their families are motivated to donate their organs, within six months we would have enough kidneys for transplants to meet the current need.”

Uma has a special connection with the UAE, and over the years has acquired financial support from many well-wishers here. Since her first visit to Dubai to raise funds for her charity in 2002, she has been visiting UAE every year to garner funds for her many projects. No donation is too small for Uma.

“From construction workers who would keep aside five dirhams every month from their wages and send us a consolidated amount, to companies who give us pretty large sums, we have got monetary support from almost every section of society here,” she says.

During her first visit to Dubai, a chance meeting with the then Consul General of India in Dubai, Dr George Joseph, led to her meeting several people who donated enough money which she used to buy five secondhand dialysis machines. “I’ve now got close to 45 dialysis machines which are helping hundreds of people every day,’’ she says.

Uma found her calling early in life. The daughter of a mill worker, she grew up in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Her favourite books in school told stories of Florence Nightingale and Swami Vivekananda, a social reformer.

She would often accompany her father, who also did work in the community, during his visits to help the underprivileged. So when the time came to choose a career, Uma did not have second thoughts. As soon as she completed her schooling, she joined Pope Paul Mercy Home – a charity helping poor patients in Trichur in Kerala. It was here that she met her husband.

At the time of his death all Uma had was her son and a few assets. But that did not stop her from going back to her calling. “I am addicted to social work. I get my daily dose of oxygen from helping others,” she says.

Making a difference

Who: Uma Preman
What: Runs a charity Santhi Information Medical Centre (
Where: Tamil Nadu and Kerala