December 19, 2017, was a momentous day that will never be forgotten by Vellore “Gopal” Gopalaratnam, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and his family.
It was only about 24 hours after Gopal’s name was placed on a waiting list for a liver transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. It was also the date his two daughters were flying from their respective homes in California and the U.K. to St. Louis for a holiday visit with their parents, who live in Columbia, Missouri. Since Gopal and his wife, Anantha, were driving to the airport to pick up their daughters, the family decided they would spend the night in St. Louis as a “dry run” to check out the hotel and surrounding area where they might stay one day when Gopal had his transplant.
Their older daughter, Arthi Vellore, arrived when expected, but their younger daughter, Adithi Vellore, was several hours late due to a delayed flight. Because of the delay, the family decided to check into the hotel before returning to the airport. Just minutes after they entered their room, Gopal got an unexpected call from the transplant coordinator. Gopal was a match for a donated organ that had just become available, and he needed to come to Barnes-Jewish immediately. Gopal and Anantha left a message on Adithi’s phone to come to the hospital directly instead of the hotel. She was already midair when they called and would only learn of the dramatic change in plans once she landed.
Not only were Gopal and Anantha fortunate to be in St. Louis, instead of two hours away in Columbia, but they even had a bag packed to spend the night.
“We were quite prepared for the transplant, but we never anticipated the transplant would actually take place the next day,” Gopal says. “We were given to understand that the wait for a transplant would be long and could take six months to a year. Receiving the call the next day was indeed unexpected and something we are ever so grateful for.”
In addition to the surprisingly short waiting time, Gopal says he was one of three potential recipients selected to receive the donated organ.
“First and foremost, our gratitude goes out to the donor and the donor’s family. Their generosity and sacrifice have made the life I lead today possible, one that I hope honors the precious gift they’ve given me,” he says. “My family and I owe them a great debt.”
Gopal’s procedure was on Dec. 20 at the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center. His surgeon was Maria B. Majella Doyle, MD, The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s Mid-America Transplant/Department of Surgery Distinguished Endowed Chair in Abdominal Transplantation.
Gopal says he was mentally prepared to be in the hospital for at least two weeks, but he and his family were in for another big surprise. His recovery was going so well that he was discharged on Dec. 24, just four days after his surgery.
“It was very shocking,” Anantha says. “The doctors walked in on the 24th telling us, ‘We can let you go home.’”
“We were home in time for Christmas,” Gopal says.
The Journey from Cancer to Transplant
Although the transplant happened quite quickly, the journey to that point took several years as Gopal battled liver cancer. In November 2016, when it appeared that transplant was the only option, Gopal met with William Chapman, MD, surgical director of the transplant center, and hepatologist Jeffrey Crippin, MD, the center’s medical director.
Dr. Chapman is the Eugene M. Bricker Chair of Surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Crippin is The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital Marilyn E. Bornefeld Endowed Chair in Gastrointestinal Research and Treatment. Both endowed chairs were established at the Foundation. Endowed chairs, among the highest of honors bestowed upon the hospital’s physicians, give outstanding researchers and clinicians the ability to pursue groundbreaking work that helps them develop better treatments and technology.
Gopal and Anantha described the doctors as being very calming and reassuring. Drs. Chapman and Crippin explained that the transplant team had years and years of experience and that patients go on to enjoy many productive years after the surgery. Gopal specifically remembered Dr. Crippin discussing a patient that was running marathons 30 years after her transplant.
The Gopalaratnams know they made the right choice.
“It’s been two-plus years now and I’ve really not slowed down at all,” Gopal says. “We are very grateful to the incredible transplant team of physicians and nurses at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. They were a pleasure to work with—not just talented medical professionals, but also compassionate guides throughout this stressful process. They’ve become like extended family to us. The most important sense from this experience is that the Barnes-Jewish team put us in a position to succeed—so that when the transplant suddenly became available, we were ready to respond. They prepared us so well that it just felt like we were in the right place at the right time.”
“We truly appreciated the holistic approach they took with the entire family,” says Anantha. “They explained the entire process…addressing all facets of how our lives would be affected.”
A Family Focus on Service
Because of their gratitude, Gopal and Anantha have made a gift to the Organ Transplant Innovation Fund at the Foundation. The fund provides support for pilot projects that fuel future clinical and scientific advancements, allowing physicians to make breakthroughs, engage in translational research and bring discoveries into the practice of medicine. This seed funding helps to finance trials that are crucial to the ability of transplant teams to improve the care of patients and their outcomes.
Gopal and Anantha made their gift through the donor-advised fund (DAF) application on the Foundation’s website. A DAF is a giving vehicle that allows donors to make a charitable contribution, receive an immediate tax deduction and then recommend grants from the fund over time.
“As a family, we are passionate about serving the communities around us with a focus on health care, food and nutrition, education, and social justice issues. The DAF mechanism of giving allows us to accomplish our goals in these broad focus areas with minimal paperwork,” Gopal says. “In addition, the DAF mechanism allows consolidated and robust record-keeping of most of our giving.”
The gift was made specifically to the Organ Transplant Innovation Fund because the couple wanted to support “anything and everything the transplant team does,” Gopal says.
“It would be wonderful for somebody else to have the opportunity to receive the kind of care Gopal received,” adds Anantha.
They explained that giving back is very much a part of their lives and both have volunteered for many years at family and homeless shelters in the Columbia area.
“I come from a family that has a tradition of philanthropy and community outreach. Service is something that is very, very important to us,” Gopal says. “In addition to the transplant, the pandemic really hit home that we are so fortunate to have a job, to be able to work online, to have health insurance. There are so many folks for whom education, health care, employment and basic necessities like food and clothing are significant challenges during the pandemic.”
He says their gift to the transplant fund ties in very well to the family’s focus on service.
“Service is really transformative,” Gopal says. “We don’t really consider that we are helping someone else—transformation of the self to become a better person is our driving motivation.”