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Philip Margolin's Wild Justice
Mass murder, torture, and a handsome physician come together in this thriller about black-market organ sales.
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• The Tale of the Contraband Kidney
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The Tale of the Contraband Kidney
Stop me if you've heard this one before. On second thought, don't, because you undoubtedly have. It was probably at a party, and you probably heard it from a relative or friend. They looked into your eyes and earnestly told you about a horrible thing that happened to the boyfriend of their friend's coworker's daughter. "Honest," they assured you, "I know these people--it's true!" And the story probably sounded something like this:
"Hank works with this guy named Bob. This is totally true and it happened to Bob's daughter's boyfriend. A couple of weeks ago, he was traveling on business, at a convention. And one day, after several long meetings, he went to the hotel bar to relax a little. Someone at the bar walked over and offered to buy him a drink, and that's the last thing the guy remembers before he blacked out.
"He came to in his hotel room, lying in a bathtub filled with ice up to his neck. He was confused, scared, and in a lot of pain. That's when he saw the note taped to the bathroom wall. It said, 'If you want to live, call 911 now.' There was a phone on a small table right next to the tub. He called, and the 911 people asked him if he was bandaged around his torso. He was.
"Then they asked him to reach around his back and feel for a tube. He did, and noticed the tube for the first time. That's when the operator told the poor guy that he had been drugged and that someone had removed his kidney. It's part of a black-market, organ-stealing ring, and this happens to business travelers all the time. The operator told him to get back into the tub and wait for the paramedics to arrive."
If the story scared or entertained you, that's fine. But if you believed it, we've got to talk. Because not a word of it is true. Tales of kidney theft have been around for at least 10 years, and they're all Urban Legends. What's an Urban Legend? An Urban Legend is a story that spontaneously appears on the scene, spreads like wildfire, is always second hand, and is presented as the truth. The stories usually contain elements of horror and humor and rarely get down to specifics. Think about the story above: The victim has no name, the hotel has no name, and the story has no specific date ("a couple of weeks ago" = "once upon a time" in these yarns). These days, many urban legends are passed on in emails, often presented as a dire warning to pass on to all of your friends and coworkers.
The kidney theft story has undergone countless mutations, most of which add some local color and customize the story for its audience. In one telling, the businessman lures a prostitute into his Las Vegas hotel room and ends up kidney-less in the bathtub. This account, no doubt, is a sort of morality play where the victim sows the seeds of his own destruction through lewd behavior. In another incarnation, the businessman is drugged at a public bar in New Orleans (or some other large city) and is an innocent victim. This is scarier--and more popular--precisely because it takes on an it-could-happen-to-you feeling.
An email version popular in Sydney, Australia, adds a good dose of local flavor. An unidentified "mate" (who else?) goes to a party, where he is invited to join an attractive woman at a second party. He joins her, and at the second party he is slipped the drugs, wakes up in a bathtub filled with ice, and yadda yadda yadda--you know the rest. What distinguishes this telling is an alert that the crime ring is active in Sydney and Brisbane, a claim that the story passed through a Sydney firefighter, and the addition of contact information for a Sydney Medical Center. Such local color makes the stories seem real, which in turn speeds their transmission.
For those tellers and tellees not yet of business-traveling age, we can offer the college party cautionary tale. In this classic, the guy (and it's almost always a guy) goes to a party, meets a woman, gets invited to another party, gets drugged, and wakes up in a tub of ice. The college version usually features a "Call 911 if you want to live" note written in lipstick, and the college victim is usually missing both of his kidneys. Reports frequently place the college victim in a university hospital awaiting a suitable donor. This cautionary tale derives a certain oomph from the youth-cut-down-in-his-prime angle.
Now that you know what the story is, you may wonder where it came from? Well, Urban Legends are folklore, and folklore is extremely difficult to trace. But we can make some educated guesses. In 1989, a story hit the British Press about a Turkish worker being duped out of a kidney. He was offered a new job, told he needed to undergo some medical tests, and woke up without a job offer and missing a kidney. The story turned out to be a hoax. Similar stories come from India, where until 1995 kidney donors not related to organ recipients were paid for their donation.
It's not such a stretch to go from kidney sales to a kidney black market, and it's a sad truth that people awaiting kidney transplants outnumber available donors. The stolen kidney tale taps into a fear of technology advancing without ethical restraints. On a more basic level, the story feeds off our fear of being the victim of random crime and our feeling vulnerable in unfamiliar circumstances. It's classic, infectious scarelore.
Unfortunately, these stories get transmitted at a high cost. Police departments in cities like New Orleans have spent time and money reassuring locals that a ring of kidney thieves is not on the loose in their hometown. Newspapers like the The Daily Texan have had to deny running stories about organ theft and have been flooded with updates and accounts of similar crimes.
But the organ transplant associations have sustained the most serious damage. The number of registered donors is down, and this Urban Legend is partly to blame. For the record: There is no black market for stolen kidneys--or any other organ for that matter. The technical challenge of matching a donor kidney to the recipient to avoid rejection by the recipient's immune system makes anonymous donation impossible, and it's illegal in the U.S. and most other nations to sell or buy a body part.
Furthermore, a donated organ must be transferred to a patient within a few hours; it's unlikely that a ring of thieves could replicate the complicated system required to make this transfer happen. And just in case you were wondering, sitting in a bathtub of ice won't do you any good if you've had both your kidneys removed, and the incision to remove a kidney is located on your side, not your back.
Now that you know the facts, you'll know not to get too riled up the next time your brother-in-law has a humdinger of a story about his babysitter's cousin's neighbor. And while a little fear can be fun, we hope that such tales of urban horror won't keep you up at night or influence any important medical decisions you make.


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