By Hana Chen
It’s a friendship like many others.
They meet every few months, usually for dinner or drinks, and end up talking and laughing into the wee hours. They goof around with inside jokes, taking the ribbing with good humour.
Sakthibalan Balathandautham’s closeness with Ruthra Sarvanan, 34, her husband Sunil Jayakumar, 33, and their little 4-year-old girl Rheya is plain to see.
But while their friendship may seem typical, it sprung from an unusual situation. In fact, three years ago, they hadn’t even met yet.
Sakthibalan, 30, is Rheya’s liver donor.
When Rheya was born in 2019, she was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a rare blockage in the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder. At just 40 days old, baby Rheya had to undergo a Kasai procedure to improve her bile flow.
But the surgery failed, and doctors told Ruthra and Sunil that Rheya needed a new liver.
Worse, both parents were unsuitable donors.
“We didn’t know what to do,” recounts Ruthra, “all our family members with the same blood group were overseas, and it was (the peak) of Covid. It was so hard for us to get anybody here.”
It was her brother who came up with a drastic solution.
It was June 2020 and Rheya, then not even a year old, needed a viable donor by August. With the limited time frame, the couple began posting on social media, appealing to the public for a viable donor.
A friend had shared the Instagram post and asked him if he was interested in donating.
“I think she meant it as a joke,” he recalls, “but I took it seriously.”
The very next day, after Sakthibalan did some research on liver transplants, he called the anxious parents at 1am to add his name to the list of potential donors.
Wasn’t it scary, we ask, to offer to be a living organ donor to a stranger?
He brushes off the gesture with a wave of his hand.
“To be frank, it’s nothing much to fear,” he explains to The Pride.
And he wasn’t the only generous one — about a hundred people had reached out. From that list, the National University Centre for Organ Transplantation (NUCOT) at National University Hospital, where Rheya was undergoing treatment, shortlisted viable donors with Sunil’s input. From that, Sakthibalan was picked.
With the surgery set for September, it was just a matter of waiting.
On his part, Sakthibalan began to prepare for the surgery, cutting out alcohol and cigarettes. NUH also checked in on his mental and psychological state during evaluation appointments to ensure that he was prepared for what was to come.
“Go there, give, and zao”
The surgery on Sept 30 was successful, with Sakthibalan donating almost a quarter of his liver to Rheya.
“We didn’t know the identity of Rheya’s donor initially,” recounts Ruthra, “we didn’t even realise he was lying beside her in the waiting area.”
Due to ethical considerations, organ donors are anonymous. After Sakthibalan was shortlisted as a potential donor, NUCOT’s transplant coordinator took over the subsequent arrangements: Sunil and Ruthra did not know who the final selected donor was.
It was a situation that Sakthibalan was fine with — after all, he decided to be a donor out of altruism, and not out of any desire for recognition. In his own words, his mindset at the time was to “go there, give, and zao (Hokkien for run).”
But out of concern (and a little bit of curiosity!), he reached out to the couple to check in on Rheya after they posted an update on social media.
While he was among the many who messaged Ruthra and Sunil to check on Rheya, he stood out because he seemed to know more about the situation than he let on.
Eventually, they decided to ask him if he was the donor — and the grateful parents spared no time in asking if he would like to meet the girl whose life he saved.
Like a family
When the family first met their “hero”, the adults quickly found out that they shared a similar sense of humour. Even Rheya, a normally shy toddler, took to Sakthibalan immediately, a first for her.
As Sakthibalan puts it, it’s like they were “always there”. Despite his initial reservations about meeting the family, they clicked instantly, and he found it natural to open up to them.
Their gatherings are like those between any other friends — they play games, have a few drinks, and generally have a good time. They especially like going to gaming arcades with Rheya.
“I’d tell myself, actually I wanted to leave at 10(pm),” Sakthibalan explains, “then it’ll become two o’clock, three o’clock, and by the time we get a Grab, it’d be about 4am.”
For Ruthra and Sunil, reaching out on social media to ask strangers for help has not only given their daughter a new lease on life, but also a lifelong friend. When Rheya went through several episodes of viral infection after the surgery, Sakthibalan was one of the first few people that they reached out to for support.
“He’s always been checking in on Rheya, checking in on me and my husband, making sure our mental state is also sane because we are also going through so much,” says Ruthra.
“He’s like a brother,” she adds, smiling.
And for Sakthibalan, what started as an instinctive desire to do some good and help others ended with him finding a surrogate family of sorts; and a way for him to encourage others to also come forward.
In recognition of Sakthibalan’s bravery, he was voted ST Singaporean of the Year 2021 — but to him, he just did what he felt was right.
As he puts it: “You can have a thousand people coming forward, the matching rate might not be high. If you have a million people come forward, the matching rate might be the same, but there’s a higher chance of success.”
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This practical philosophy, as well as his trust in medical advancements, was what led him to commit to his decision — he never expected that it would also lead to his friendship with Ruthra, Sunil, and their family.
Says Ruthra: “We want to create more memories with him. And we want Rheya to understand as she grows up, you know, the process she went through, and how Sakthi came to the picture.”