MONTREAL — When Baruch Tegegne, a Montreal resident who played a heroic role in Israel’s rescue of his fellow Ethiopian Jews, found a kidney donor, he was hoping to have a transplant at the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital.
Instead, he seems more likely to end up in court with the hospital than in one of its operating rooms.
Tegegne, 61, who suffers from advanced kidney disease as a complication of diabetes, found a willing donor in India through an Internet site. But the hospital declined to perform the procedure on ethical grounds, noting that the prospective donor is a stranger.
The buying and selling of organs is illegal in Canada, and hospital officials say they have no way to verify whether this truly would be an altruistic donation or a financial deal. Tegegne’s supporters said the only payment would be to cover the would-be donor’s travel and living expenses and the income he forgoes while recuperating in Canada.
“I was shocked in the beginning that the hospital refused,” a weary Tegegne told the Forward. “I think that the person who wants to give his kidney, he has the right to decide, not somebody else, not a hospital, not a doctor.”
Simcha Jacobovici, a Toronto filmmaker and a friend of Tegegne, had posted details about the ailing Ethiopian’s background and his plight on the Web site www.MatchingDonors.com. The Indian man saw the posting and was moved by it, having lost his grandfather to kidney disease, said Jacobovici. The would-be donor is an educated, middle-class Indian, not an impoverished organ seller, he added.
Jacobovici said the hospital has acted arbitrarily in ruling out all non-related organ donations. “It’s not like they’ve put in place a protocol” to assess whether an altruistic donation is genuine, he said.
Faced with Royal Victoria’s refusal, Michael Bergman, Tegegne’s lawyer, plans to file a lawsuit next week in Quebec Superior Court. Bergman and Jacobovici also are exploring other hospital options.
The Toronto General Hospital has done one transplant involving unrelated parties, and it is open to doing more on a case-by-case basis. Tegegne would have to convince the Toronto hospital that the Indian donor’s motive is altruistic, not financial. Even then, however, it is unclear whether, having been turned down in Quebec, Tegegne would be covered by Quebec’s health insurance plan for reimbursement of the costly procedure.
Rambam Medical Center in Haifa has agreed to do the surgery, even offering to do it at a discount, but Tegegne would have to raise $100,000 to $200,000 to cover the medical, post-operative and transportation costs. Although he has Israeli citizenship, Tegegne is ineligible for coverage under Israel’s national health service because he has not been paying into it since he immigrated to Canada in 1979. Sharon Regev, Israel’s vice consul in Montreal, declined to comment on Tegegne’s situation.
Despite its impoverished status, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has managed to raise $20,000 for Tegegne. Another $21,000 has been raised through the Sha’arei Dayah Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., which created a Web site (www.transplantnow.org) to promote online contributions.
Tegegne said that he feels abandoned by the Montreal Jewish community. “Nobody has tried here in Montreal to come forward and say, ‘I can do something for you, I can help you,’” he said. Jacobovici agreed: “Here’s a guy who is a hero of the Jewish people. He put his life in danger many times to save others. Where are the movers and shakers who could write a check for $100,000?”
Tegegne was brought to Israel as a child by former president Yitzhak Ben Tzvi, as part of a group of Ethiopian Jews who were educated in Hebrew and imbued with Zionism. As a young adult, he returned to Ethiopia to help other Jews in his native land. In the mid-1970s, when a brutal Marxist regime took power in Ethiopia, he and other Zionists were arrested. To escape Ethiopia, Tegegne made his way on foot across part of the Sahara Desert, eventually stowing away on a ship to reach Israel.
He then became a leading advocate, in Israel and abroad, for Ethiopian Jewry at a time when their plight largely was ignored. “He played a pivotal role not only in the advocacy campaign but also in the physical rescue of Ethiopian Jews,” said Jacobovici, whose documentary, “Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews,” chronicles Tegegne’s epic journey.
In the early 1980s, when the 8,000 Ethiopian Jews who fled Ethiopia to neighboring Sudan were stranded in refugee camps and faced famine, the Sudanese government, at odds with Israel, refused to let them leave. Tegegne managed to smuggle out 20 of them. “He did exactly what [the Israeli government] said couldn’t be done,” Jacobovici said. “That was a catalyst for Israel to act.”
Eventually, beginning in 1984, the first major wave of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants was airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses.
These days, Tegegne receives dialysis treatment four days a week, Bergman said.
“He spends his days either on dialysis or recovering from dialysis,” the lawyer said. “It is a progressive and deteriorating illness, and the longer he is on dialysis, the less suitable a candidate he is for a transplant. His outlook, though, is positive. He has a quiet courage and is determined to fight for his rights.”