Originally created 03/01/97

Internet tale of kidney theft seen as `urban myth run amok'



The Internet message that has circulated through offices around the United States is, according to many authorities, a hoax.

The message tells of business travelers who accept a drink from a stranger and wake up in a hotel tub, packed in ice, with their kidneys stolen.

The "well organized, well funded" crime ring is operating in most major cities, the message claims, and has recently been "very active in New Orleans."

Those who declare the message a hoax include the New Orleans Police Department, the National Kidney Foundation and an officer of the American Society of Transplant Physicians, a group represented by Slack Inc.

"It's an urban myth run amok," said Wendy Brown, chairwoman of the National Kidney Foundation.

"It's a total hoax," said J. Harold Helderman, a transplant surgeon and the transplant physicians' president-elect.

In the United States, the 35,000 individuals who, at any moment, are waiting for a kidney transplant must rely on someone to donate a compatible organ, Helderman said. But only 15,000 kidneys become available each year, he said.

"When you have stories (such as this), it provides a disincentive for families at that moment of grief ... to altruistically offer the organs (of a loved one who has died), and that's a tragedy," he said.

The message that scared some Mobil Corp. employees read, in part:

"The crime begins when a business traveler goes to a lounge for a drink at the end of the workday. A person in the bar walks up as they sit alone and offers to buy them a drink. The last thing the traveler remembers until they wake up in a hotel room bathtub, their body submerged to their neck in ice, is sipping the drink. There is a note taped to the wall instructing them not to move and to call 911. A phone is on a small table next to the bathtub for them to call. The business traveler calls 911, who have become quite familiar with this crime. The business traveler is instructed by the 911 operator to very slowly and carefully reach behind them and feel if there is a tube protruding from their lower back. The business traveler finds the tube and answers yes.

"The 911 operator tells them to remain still, having already sent paramedics to help. The operator knows that both of the business traveler's kidneys have been harvested.

"This is not a scam or out of a science fiction novel, it is real," the message claims. "It is documented and confirmable."

The message is signed and gives a telephone number and pager number, both in Texas. Callers find that those numbers have been either disconnected or are no longer in service.

Similar dead ends have greeted anyone who has attempted to investigate the Internet message.

The New Orleans Police Department, which had been deluged for several months with queries about the message, found no examples of kidney theft when it investigated.

In a Jan. 30 news release, the department declared that the message is "completely without merit and without foundation. The warnings that are being disseminated through the Internet are fictitious and may be in violation of criminal statutes concerning the issuance of erroneous and misleading information."

When the message began circulating through Mobil Corp.'s computer system, the company contacted police in Fairfax County, Va., where its headquarters is located. Then it sent another message to its employees declaring the warnings a hoax, said spokeswoman Ida Walker.

To buttress their conclusion the message is a hoax, authorities often point to negatives.

"Nobody's been admitted to a hospital in kidney failure," said Helderman. "They'd be dead in time because of uremia. There are none of these people."

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Employees at Slack Inc. in Thorofare, N.J., which handles business for the American Society of Transplant Physicians, did not have the surgeon's knowledge when they got the Internet message.

"Someone sent us an e-mail to be careful because so many of us travel," said Pam Ballinger, a Slack spokesperson. She said the company called its clients, the transplant doctors, for advice.

Helderman said theft and reuse of kidneys is not possible because "it's not a trivial operation."

"Where's their (the victim's) IV? This is major surgery with anesthesia, a tube in their lungs," the surgeon said. "You just don't wake up in a tub of ice. You go to a recovery room, get fluids. You have your breathing tubes slowly taken out."

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The messages may be believed "because people are not medically educated and because it may sound plausible or because they may have seen a movie like `Coma,"' Helderman said, and the result is that those people are less willing to donate the organs of a loved one.

Kidneys and other organs cannot be sold in the United States, but a kidney transplant operation, while almost routine, is a high-priced procedure. The average bill for a transplant in 1996 was $116,100, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing in Virginia. And the follow-up care for the rest of the recipient's life was $15,900 a year.

When kidneys are donated, the network checks its computer list for a patient with matching blood type and kidney size and then distributes the organ to the patient who is at the top of the list and lives closest to the donor, said Mark Sampson, a network spokesperson. He said kidneys must be used within 72 hours of being removed.

Sampson said there would be no incentive to steal kidneys because hospitals would not use a stolen organ.

But suppose there were these bad doctors, and suppose they had their own hospital and had access to the network's computer files. And suppose there were wealthy people on the list who didn't want to wait and would pay for a new kidney.

Would kidney theft then be a possibility?

"That's the multimillion-dollar question," said Donald Joralemon, a medical anthropologist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

"It would undoubtedly be profitable," Joralemon said, noting that "people have been paid to deliver their kidneys" despite the illegality of the practice. He said there is a documented case in England. And in South India, impoverished people have sold their kidneys and eyes, he said.

"There's no doubt the monetary value of organs is going to stimulate a lot of activity," Joralemon said. "Kidneys are the one organ you can take from someone and still leave them alive."

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There are several cases of fears being raised in Third World countries that wealthy foreigners will snatch children from the streets to take their organs, Joralemon said.

In 1994, a panic swept Guatemala where, in one city, a crowd savagely attacked a woman from Alaska on the belief she was stealing children to harvest their organs. In another city, an American was held by police in "protective custody" for three weeks after being attacked by a crowd.

"It's hard to discount (these fears) entirely, given the tremendous value placed on organs on an international basis," Joralemon said. But he added, "I know of no specific instance that has been investigated with absolute certainty, (and) there have been lots of investigative efforts."