Have guys awakened after a party to find their kidneys stolen?

Dear Cecil:

Greetings, Master. I've checked the archives and found no reference to the following story, which is supposed to have come from the Daily Texan, the University of Texas newspaper. Is there any truth to it?

This guy went out last Saturday night to a party and had a couple of beers. Some girl seemed to like him and invited him to another party. He quickly agreed. She took him to a party in some apartment and they continued to drink, and even got involved with some other drugs (unknown which). The next thing he knew, he woke up completely naked in a bathtub filled with ice. He was still feeling the effects of the drugs but looked around to see he was alone. He looked down at his chest, which had "CALL 911 OR YOU WILL DIE" written on it in lipstick. He saw a phone was on a stand next to the tub, so he picked it up and dialed. He explained to the EMS operator what the situation was and that he didn't know where he was, what he took, or why he was really calling. She advised him to get out of the tub and look himself over in the mirror. He did, only to find two nine-inch slits on his lower back. She told him to get back in the tub immediately, and they sent a rescue team over. They found his kidneys were stolen. They are worth $10,000 each on the black market …

Cecil replies:

Dozens of folks have written me about this. My initial reaction was, well, at least now we know where they found the people for the first O.J. jury. Who could possibly believe this ridiculous urban legend? However, on inquiry, it appears there’s more to this story than I first thought.  

The facts: There are no documented cases of kidneynapping, or for that matter any killing, abduction, or mutilation for purposes of organ theft in the United States. The National Kidney Foundation, which fears this persistent myth will scare off donors, has asked victims of organ theft to step forward. So far no takers. While I suppose it’s possible to remove somebody’s kidneys with a paper plate and an X-acto knife, as a practical matter it can’t be done. The operation customarily takes a five-person surgical team working for three or four hours in a sterile operating room. Much of the equipment required (anesthesia machines, operating tables) is bulky and not the sort of thing you could readily sneak into an apartment, hotel room, etc. The tissue and blood types of the donor and donee must be precisely matched; you can’t just grab the first mope you see in a bar.

None of the checkable details in the story pans out. The Daily Texan says it never ran the kidney theft story, though it has run several denials. This is the third time the UT version of the legend has made the rounds. The original version, in which a guy meets a woman in a New York bar and later wakes up kidneyless, dates back at least to March 1991. (See folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand’s 1993 book, The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends.) It may have originated in a 1989 incident in England. A Turkish man told authorities he’d been lured to the UK by a job offer, only to have a kidney stolen. An investigation revealed that the man had advertised in a Turkish newspaper to sell his kidney, found a buyer, and evidently sought revenge after failing to collect full payment. (See the Urban Legends Reference Pages, www.snopes.com.)

Still, that brings up an important point: There’s a very real market for transplantable human organs, in which demand exceeds supply. (See David Rothman’s March 26, 1998, piece in the New York Review of Books.) In India the desperately poor can sell a kidney for $1,000 to $1,500. The People’s Republic of China doesn’t even bother to pay; they extract organs from executed prisoners. Two men were arrested in New York in early 1998 for offering to sell kidneys and other organs of executed Chinese. A related legend, common in some developing countries, has babies being kidnapped by rich Westerners so they can be stripped for parts. In 1993 in Guatemala, one American tourist was beaten to death and another was jailed after they were falsely accused of babynapping.

Crazy, eh? It gets crazier. While there are no known cases of kidney theft in the U.S., it’s been reliably reported elsewhere. A few weeks after my column expressing doubts about kidney theft appeared in April 1998, the Associated Press ran a story from New Delhi, India, telling of the arrest of 10 people, including three transplant surgeons and a hospital owner, after a patient claimed he’d been lured to the hospital and robbed of a kidney. Supposedly the hospital had promised the man a job in Singapore and told him a medical exam was needed to obtain a visa. Similar allegations about the hospital apparently had been made earlier. In one case a mentally retarded boy disappeared only to show up three months later $750 richer and a kidney shy.

An isolated case? Evidently not. A Washington Post story on January 30, 2008 reported that police had raided a “kidney bazaar run by a group of men posing as doctors” in Gurgaon, India. Five were arrested and five other individuals, all laborers, were rescued, three of whom had lost kidneys. Reporter Rama Lakshmi writes:

Three weeks ago, Mohammad Saleem, 33, agreed to work at a construction site in this bustling city near New Delhi. A house painter with an extended family of eight, he was drawn here by the promise of an extra dollar in his daily wage. After a few days of waiting in a blue-and-white bungalow for work to begin, Saleem said, he was forcibly anesthetized by two masked men.

“When I woke up after several hours, I felt a pain in my right side,” Saleem recalled, sitting on a metal cot in a city hospital ward. “The men said, ‘We have removed your kidney, and you better not breathe a word about it.’ My life broke into pieces when I heard that.”

Saleem was the latest in a long list of poor laborers who had come to Gurgaon to work and lost their kidneys as a result. Police say they were victims of a major organ-trafficking racket based in this city for nearly a decade.

Prospective kidney purchasers are believed to have come from Canada, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The scheme allegedly was masterminded by one Amit Kumar, at large at the time of writing, who has run similar operations in India since the early 1990s. It’s not clear if Kumar was involved in the 1998 case, nor is there word on how the delicate job of tissue-matching was accomplished. Nonetheless, it appears kidney theft happens, just not in the U.S.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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