Kidney Thieves

NO ONE KNOWS why, but in 1997 the mind contagion broke out in New Orleans. In January, as the city geared up for its annual Mardi Gras festivities, a rumor began circulating via word-of-mouth, fax, and email to the effect that a highly organized crime ring in New Orleans was carrying out plans to drug visitors, surgically remove organs from their bodies, and sell the organs on the black market.

The viral message, which most often arrived under the header "Travelers Beware," sparked an avalanche of phone calls to local authorities, prompting the New Orleans Police Department to publish an official statement on the Web to calm public fears. Investigators found no substantiating evidence whatsoever.

The story had a familiar ring. Before New Orleans, people said it happened in Houston; before Houston, Las Vegas — where an unsuspecting tourist was drugged in his hotel room by a prostitute and woke up the next morning, supposedly, in a bathtub full of ice, minus a kidney.

A chilling tale, and a dubious one

It's a scenario that has taken many forms. I first heard it myself many years ago from a friend who'd heard it from another friend, whose mother swore it had happened to a distant cousin.

In that version, the victim — we'll call him "Bob" — was on a business trip alone somewhere in Europe, and went out to a bar one night to have a cocktail. Wouldn't you know it, he woke up the next morning in an unfamiliar hotel room with severe pain in his lower back. He was taken to the emergency room, where doctors determined that, unbeknownst to himself, Bob had undergone major surgery the night before. One of his kidneys had been removed, cleanly and professionally.

A chilling tale, and a dubious one. With minor variations, the same story has been told thousands of times by thousands of different people in many different locales. And it's always based, like the version I heard, and the version you heard, on third-, fourth-, or fifth-hand information.

It is, in fact, an urban legend.

Which is not to say that human organs are never traded illicitly in parts of the world where people can get away with it. The case for the existence of an international black market organ trade has become increasingly convincing in recent years. What remain unsubstantiated are the tales of "back room" organ thefts perpetrated in the dark night in secluded alleys and seedy hotel rooms. "There is absolutely no evidence of such activity ever occurring in the U.S. or any other industrialized country," says the United Network for Organ Sharing. "While the tale sounds credible enough to some listeners, it has no basis in the reality of organ transplantation."

In fact, it's all but impossible for such activities to take place outside properly-equipped medical facilities, UNOS argues. The removal, transport, and transplantation of human organs involves procedures so complex and delicate, requiring a sterile setting, minute timing, and the support of so many highly-trained personnel, that they simply could not be accomplished "on the street," as it were.

No victims have ever come forward

The National Kidney Foundation has repeatedly issued requests for alleged victims of such crimes to come forward and validate their stories. To date, none have.

Even so, like so many urban legends fueled by irrational fear and ignorance, the organ theft story continues to spread from person to person and place to place, changing and adapting to its surroundings over time like a mutating virus.

Unlike many other urban legends, unfortunately, this one has put real people's lives at risk. A decade or so ago, rumors began spreading in Guatemala to the effect that Americans were kidnaping local children in order to harvest their organs for transplantation in the United States. In 1994, several U.S. citizens and Europeans were attacked by mobs who believed the rumors to be true. An American woman, Jane Weinstock, was severely beaten and remains critically impaired.

Officials in Gurgaon, India are trying to round up members of a criminal gang accused of drugging poor people, stealing their kidneys, and transplanting the organs into the bodies of wealthy customers, ABC News reported today. "It sounds like the old urban legend of people lured into an apartment or house and then being robbed of their kidneys," the report begins. "But in India, it is no legend."

Well, yes and no. Not to dismiss the report, I do feel obliged to point out that it reads more like the inverse of the familiar urban legend than a case in point. In the legend, unsuspecting foreign tourists are drugged, kidnapped, and taken to makeshift operating rooms where their kidneys are stolen for sale on the black market. The actual victims, according to police, are poverty-stricken locals, enticed with promises of employment into what can only be described as a real-life house of horrors where they are forced to "donate" their organs at gunpoint. There are foreign tourists involved, to be sure, but in this scenario they are paying customers, not victims.

Last weekend, police raided a "luxury guest house" owned by the alleged mastermind of the kidney theft ring, Dr. Amit Kumar. Neighbors had reported seeing blood running from the gutters of the building, not to mention "blood-soaked bandages and even bits of flesh" strewn in an open lot nearby.

So, is kidney theft an urban legend, or not? I suppose that depends on how the tale is told.

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