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Antonio, the organ driver

Antonio, outside the Hospital Regional in Malaga, with his taxi.
Antonio, outside the Hospital Regional in Malaga, with his taxi. / Ñito Salas
  • For 25 years he has been transporting hearts, livers, kidneys, pancreases "and even eyes" which have been donated and are to be placed in new bodies. And there is no time to lose: "You have to go a bit faster than usual"

He was more used to picking up passengers, but then he took a decision which changed not only his life but also that of others. Twenty-five years ago, Antonio de los Ríos applied to be permitted to transport organs for transplants, in response to a request for help from Miguel Ángel Frutos, who was the transplant coordinator for the Hospital Regional in Malaga at that time. The Andalusian Health Service (SAS) only set one condition: he would have to be available 24 hours a day. Nobody knows when there could be a death which, in a paradox which is beautiful but cruel, could keep someone else alive.

Antonio normally likes to keep a low profile, being only too aware of the importance of what he carries in the back of his car, but "I'm telling my story because I want to encourage people to become donors," he says, shyly. There is nothing strange in that: for more than two decades he has witnessed how a generous gesture when someone dies makes all the difference in saving the life of others.

Antonio has driven livers, kidneys, pancreases, hearts, bones "and even eyes", preserved in a refrigerated box, ready for a home in a new body. Sometimes he is accompanied by medical professionals who have removed the organ or will be transplanting it. Other times, he travels alone. He always has to hurry, although his wife, Antonia, never stops telling him to be careful. Speed, but not recklessness, is vital on these trips. "You have to go a bit faster than usual, but in 25 years I have only been fined twice, and I didn't have to pay because I appealed to the Traffic authorities. You know the road, and you know where you can accelerate and where you can't," he says. "It was more dangerous in the old days, when the roads were in a bad state."

He knows the map of hospitals in Andalucía like the back of his hand, although he has also made trips to Murcia, Badajoz and other provinces. "I've been to Barcelona too, because there were no flights that would get there in time," he explains.

Ischemia time

Antonio has not studied Medicine, but speaks knowledgeably about the "ischemia time", which he learned about years ago. It is the time during which an organ remains viable for a transplant, outside a body. "The heart has the shortest time, but they don't transplant those in Malaga. They only remove them so they can be transported where they are needed. Here, they carry out transplants of the liver, pancreas and kidney," he explains.

He knows every medical advance, every piece of jargon, every specialist. Domingo Daga, the transplant coordinator for the province, says Antonio is correct: "Kidneys last longest outside a body, but every organ benefits from speed. The quicker you can do a transplant, the greater the chance that it will be successful," he explains. That is why Antonio has become a key element in this delicate process. "His commitment is extraordinary," says Daga, to the point that he has become another member of the medical team. "He always gets here quickly. The work he does is very important."

After 25 years, Antonio has all sorts of anecdotes to tell. He would rather not have experienced some of them, such as when he was trapped in Jerez during a Formula One championship. "I was on the way to Cadiz with a surgeon, his assistant and a nurse. There was a massive traffic jam. Nobody could move. I had to ask the Guardia Civil for help and they escorted us, with one car in front and one behind. A helicopter also came, to tell the other drivers to let us pass," he recalls.

A few days ago a team from Valladolid landed in Malaga to remove a heart. Antonio picked them up beside the runway and brought them back after the operation, with the heart preserved in ice in an isothermic container. The heart and lungs are the organs which survive for the least time outside the body: between three and six hours. That's why every minute counts.

The pressure isn't easy to cope with. Antonio still remembers a trip to the Virgen Macarena university hospital in Seville: "I had to take some liquids, but one of the packs had expired. I had to rush back to get it replaced and still arrive on time," he says.

He has known nearly all the surgeons who work in Malaga since they were newly qualified, and gets on well with them. Now, with just three years to go before retirement, the pandemic has made him yearn to park his taxi permanently and spend more time with his three daughters and five grandchildren. "Five and a half, actually, because another one is on the way," he says.

It will be a time to relax for the man who has spent nearly three decades ensuring that donated organs arrive in time to improve the life of their recipients, when there is no time to lose. "The worst thing is the code zero ," he says. This code is assigned to critical patients who are between life and death. If it were down to Antonio, none of them would cross to the other side.