By G Babu Jayakumar Sep. 29, 2016
K Anthony is a transporter of hearts, and he drives like the devil to deliver them on time.
Six hours. That’s how long a human heart can last outside the body. For a transplant, these are the golden minutes. Medical professionals train like ultra-marathoners to cope with that kind of pressure. But before they can even hope to begin, it comes down to what K Anthony and his band of brothers can do because they have a driving license. Who would have thought a scrap of paper from the RTO would validate a life? For over 20 years, K Anthony has driven round Chennai at crazy speeds carrying beating hearts in sealed containers in the back of ambulances. Over a dozen tickers, in fact.
No matter where he starts, his destination is the Frontier Lifeline Hospital at Mogappair, in northwest Chennai, one of the few hospitals in India specialising in heart transplants. Often, Anthony hits 140 kmph on Chennai’s dense roads.
“You live or die in that time,” says Anthony. “After that, the heart is no good. Nor the patient. It’s insane. I don’t take my foot off the pedal.”
The drive that made Anthony famous was the one he undertook in 2008, when 15-year-old Hitendran died in a car accident, and his parents donated his heart to a 10-year-old girl named Abirami. It was not the distance that Anthony covered, so much as the drama of heartbreak of the families concerned. TVs went live on the case. And to add to the tragedy, the girl died a day after the operation. “I cried,” he says. “What else could I do?”
The media celebrates the Anthonian chase every time he or his friends do a Narain Karthikeyan in the middle of the city, covering a 45-minute distance in 12.
“They make it sound like some thriller movie chase. Actually, it busts your heart,” he says.
“The operation theatre is waiting for you, the patient’s family, and now, of course, the odd journalist with the TV camera, if he gets wind of it. But I try not to think about anything except the road ahead of my nose,” he adds. Still, he appreciates the fact that people now know the ambulance driver too has a crucial role in saving a life.
Anthony is 41 years old, and moves with easy confidence. When I met him, he had just finished his Sunday shift. “Nothing much happened today,” he says, perhaps not without the slightest sense of disappointment. Anthony drives the hospital ambulance for routine emergencies, but he specialises in transporting harvested organs.
Ambulance drivers work on eight-hour rotations, but they are on call around the clock. Heart transplant is a bit of a rarity in India even now, due to lack of expertise and legal sanctions. Maharashtra, for example, adopted the Centre’s Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 2011, only last year.
When the emergency cycle starts, Anthony is among the first to be alerted. His house, where he lives with his wife and two school-going daughters, is barely 500 metres from the hospital. He knows the importance of the equation between time and distance better than most. In a matter of minutes, he’s on the spot, lights blaring, sirens ringing, pedal to the metal. This is why he never drinks. He says nobody in this line of work does.
Anthony’s job begins with the doctors. First a doctor from the hospital examines a patient along a few parameters to declare them brain dead, and then returns to make some tests to decide if the heart would be suitable for a transplant. Then, if the doctors okay it, two vehicles will take off. One, an ambulance with a wide range of medical facilities and two, a smaller vehicle, like a Scorpio. The heart will normally be transported in the smaller vehicle, with the doctor from the hospital who holds on to it as though it is his own life. The ambulance with the other staff and equipment follows this vehicle.
Anthony’s knowledge of roadways and rush hours, signals, and shortcuts is so ingrained, he barely has to acknowledge it. It’s an almost clinical detachment. His moves on the road are surgically precise and just as prompt. Usually, though, the traffic works against him.
On the roads, he’s found the affluent and educated middle-class to be the most insensitive. They refuse to give way. Autorickshaws move to the side, and loudly abuse those who block the path. But motorcycles and self-driven luxury cars move at their own pace, largely oblivious to the emergency. The police used to have a contemptuous attitude too, although that is changing.
At a meeting called by a city police commissioner many years ago, to explore reductions in road fatalities, the top cop had asked ambulance drivers to spell out the difficulties they face on the ground. Anthony stood up and spoke bluntly that policemen were not cooperative and treated ambulance drivers callously. It was a proud moment for him.
“It’s much better now,” Anthony says, in his calm voice. “Things became better after the Hitendran episode. The police got into action and began playing an active hand. They’ve now created a green corridor through which the heart will be transported, and a police vehicle will lead the ambulance.”
Anthony is a tall man, with the beginnings of a paunch. And he has quick eyes and a steady stare. When he’s driving, his face is a study in concentration. After dropping out of school in the ninth standard, Anthony came to the state capital from Pudukottai, a small town in southern Tamil Nadu, looking for a livelihood. He became an ambulance driver to pay the bills, but soon came to see it as a calling. He got married around the same time that he started specialising as a driver for organ-donor vehicles, after joining Frontier Lifeline.
“They make it sound like some thriller movie chase. Actually, it busts your heart.”
It takes a lot to make the grade as the transporter of such precious cargo. Dedication, commitment, fast reflexes, and great temperament are some of the crucial traits that define a driver like Anthony. There are, as a hospital source said, not too many of them.
Anthony was handpicked by the founder of the hospital, internationally renowned heart surgeon K M Cherian. Every ambulance driver for the hospital is personally selected by Cherian, who is 73 years old and quite a legend. “After joining the hospital, I learnt a lot from watching him work,” says Anthony. “Whenever he lands in Chennai, he will drive straight to the hospital and not home. He has no Sundays either.”
The Hitendran-Abirami incident cemented Chennai’s reputation as a transplant hub. “But before the concept of a green corridor came into vogue, I’ve transported hearts in lesser times,” says Anthony. Once, he drove to Chennai from Vellore in a record 75 minutes – a distance of 140 kilometers – when the highway was just a single lane.
The Malayalam film director, Rajesh Pillai, made Traffic in 2011 about that drive. Two years later, the film was remade in Tamil as Chennaiyil Oru Naal (A Day in Chennai).
Does Anthony’s family know that the line of work puts his own life on the line? Do they have panic attacks when he goes into an overdrive?
“They don’t get to know the day I drive like a maniac,” Anthony says. “I see to it that they are in the dark about my heart dates. To my family, I am just a driver of a vehicle.” They don’t have a clear idea that he’s had to help lift accident victims soaked in blood, that the way he manoeuvres, he might meet with an accident any time. But, equally, despite his discretion, he is sure his family is not fooled. “Word gets around.”
Despite the dangers and the heart-stopping tension that comes along with the job, Anthony is proud to be a transporter of essential organs. And his family is proud of him. The doctors, too. As one of his admiring friends, who happens to be a practitioner, describes him, “Anthony is not just a driver, he is a man bridging the eternal distance between two lives.”