The moment V. Dinesh heard that donating his father’s skin was possible, he didn't hesitate. “If by donating skin we can help someone, then it’s worth it,” he said.

Two weeks ago, 63-year-old V. Vasudevan, Dinesh’s father, was killed in a road traffic accident. On March 28, when Mr. Vasudevan was declared brain dead, doctors from a private city-based hospital harvested about 2,500 sq. cm. of his skin. On April 5, another family agreed to donate their relative’s skin, and this too was harvested.

Skin donation is picking up in the city, but still has a long way to go. Including the two recent donations, the State has received only three skin donations since the inception of its organ donation programme in 2008.

Donated skin is used as biological dressing for patients who suffered major burn injuries.

“What sets skin donation apart is that it is not necessary for a patient to be brain dead to harvest it — it can even be taken from those who die of natural causes. Also, it can be stored for up to five years unlike other organs that need to be used immediately,” said G. Balakrishnan, medical director and consultant plastic surgeon, Right Hospitals, who harvested the skin. The hospital has already received skin donation pledges from about 50 people, he said.

Another skin bank in the city, the Chennai Skin Foundation, too, has received enquiries. “Around 20 people have given their consent to donate and we hope to begin harvesting next month,” said S. Murugusundram, medical director of the foundation.

“Skin is excellent biological dressing. A study in Mumbai revealed that using it on major burns victims reduces their incidence of death by 60 per cent,” he explained.

Plastic surgeons have long felt the need for skin to be used in major burns cases and have repeatedly called for donations to be stepped up. “Donated skin prevents infections, and, unlike other dressings, need not to be changed every day. It can be kept for 2-3 weeks, giving the patient enough time to recover after which his own skin is grafted back,” said V. Jayaraman, former head, burns and plastic surgery department, Government Kilpauk Hospital.

But in Tamil Nadu, unlike in Maharashtra for instance, donation has always been sporadic. “For any other donation, the organ is removed and the body stitched back. Nothing can be seen. Whereas with skin donation, there is a fear that it will disfigure the body in some way. This has to be overcome. Another problem is that not many people know about skin donation. A lot of awareness needs to be created,” said C.E. Karunakaran, trustee, National Network for Organ Sharing.

With Tamil Nadu topping the country in the number of self-immolation cases as per the latest data available, donated skin is very much needed. As per National Crime Records Bureau statistics for 2012, the State had a total of 2,349 cases of self-immolation. In Chennai alone, there were 282 cases.

The advantages of using skin on burn injuries are immense. But for people to donate and their numbers to rise, awareness is the first step, doctors said.

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