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Donating to a two-year old stranger

22 April 2022

Living organ donor Surinder Sapal first saw the kidney appeal for toddler Anaya Kandola while she was scrolling through Facebook. It was December 2018, and at the time, radiographer Surinder, from Wakefield, was finishing her Masters in breast imagery. She spotted the post, which had been shared by the NHS, and was instantly moved as she read mum Joety’s words

Surinder Sapal holding toddler Anaya
Surinder holding toddler Anaya

Help from a stranger

Mum-of-two Surinder, 39, says, “It was about how ill Anaya was and how she required a kidney but none of her family were a match because she’d had so many blood transfusions. They were looking for a donor between 18-60 with a B-Neg blood group. I ticked all the boxes, and thought to myself, ‘I’m a mum. If I was going through a situation similar to them, I’d want a stranger to help.’” 

Anaya, then two years old, had autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD) from birth. She had been on dialysis for almost all her life and was facing a very uncertain future. She was sick, weak and couldn’t walk.  

Surinder was one of 34 people to put themselves forward, and in January 2019 had initial blood tests. At the time, she told no one, not even her husband Harmit, as she suspected her family would try to change her mind.  

“I was a lone ranger, I kept it all to myself,” Surinder says. “Even when the nurse phoned to tell me I was the best match! ‘You’re like a needle in a haystack to Anaya,’ she told me. ‘You’ve matched like a parent.’” 

A perfect match

“I was shocked when I discovered I was the perfect match, but I had already made my mind up – there was no way I was going to back out. I had more tests, including MRI scans, an ECG and urine tests, and eventually in June 2019, they gave me a date for the operation. At that point, I realised I had to sit down and tell my husband. I poured him a whisky, and had a glass of wine – he thought I was going to tell him I wanted a divorce! But I think the reality was an even bigger bombshell!” 

Surinder explained why she wanted to help Anaya’s family, and although he was initially against the idea, she eventually won him over.  

“He said to me, ‘We’ve got two kids ourselves, you’re the main breadwinner, what are you doing?’ I told him I felt like it was meant to be me. I had a similar reaction from my brother, but in the end they both supported me.” 

The operation was scheduled for 19 September. Surinder told her in-laws, who were looking after her children Gurleen, 12, and Hargun, eight, that they were off to a party in Newcastle to celebrate her birthday. They were taken aback when Surinder arrived home just a day after the successful operation covered in bandages, having left hospital early.  

She says, “My father-in-law didn’t talk to me for a week! He was worried I’d put my life at risk for a stranger. My parents said to me, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you were having the tests? We would have stopped you.’ I told them, ‘That’s the reason I didn’t tell you!’” 

Surinder Sapal in hospital
Surinder in hospital before and after donating

Keeping in touch

Although organ donors are anonymous, the donor recipient family can request to be put in touch. Anaya’s parents were desperate to meet the woman who had saved their daughter’s life, and Surinder, who had been following all their Facebook updates, was similarly keen to meet up.  

“They sent me a card to say thank you, and included their number. When we first spoke on the phone, Anaya’s mum couldn’t stop crying, telling me I was their superhero and I’d changed their whole world for them. When my family met Anaya in October that year, I think my husband understood for the first time why I’d done it.  

“‘I was against it but you’ve changed her life,’ he told me. My kids have always been incredibly proud, and love the fact I’ve won all sorts of awards including one from my Sikh temple. They look on Anaya as a little sister.’”

Now, Anaya’s parents Joety and Amrik keep in regular touch with Surinder, sharing updates on her progress and the milestones she’s achieved – from being able to eat her first banana to her first day at school. During the pandemic, they swapped WhatsApp messages and FaceTimed, and last year Surinder went to Anaya’s fifth birthday.

The need for more donors

Currently, according to NHS statistics, there is an imbalance between the percentage of Black, Asian or ethnic minority deceased donors (seven per cent) and the number of people from these communities on the transplant list (32 per cent). However, 14 per cent of living donors come from ethnic minorities.

The issue for her family, Surinder says, is that they found it difficult to accept she was donating a kidney to save a stranger’s life. “They said, ‘Why would you put yourself in danger for someone you don’t know at all?’ I think they would have accepted it more if it had been a member of our family. Now , however, they can all see the effect it’s had on her life.

“But I can survive perfectly well with one kidney and it hasn’t changed my life at all, bar the few weeks of recovery I needed after the operation. If anything, I would say I’m healthier now. I think more about what I eat and drink.”

Surinder says she feels immense pride at what she has done, and encourages other people to consider living organ donation if they are suitable. Ahead of Organ Donation Week, she says, “What I would say to anyone considering donating a kidney is it’s just the most amazing feeling knowing what you’ve done to help another person.”

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