THE INSPIRATION FOR THE ORGAN TAKERS
by Richard Van Anderson
During the mid- to late-nineties, an email-propagated urban legend firmly took root. The emails served as a warning to travelers and described how a well-organized crime ring had set up shop in major American cities. This ring, according to the senders, was using seductive women to drug business travelers in hotel bars (and in a later iteration, Vegas gamblers) in order to lure them upstairs. The victims, as was detailed in the emails, were waking up in hotel bathtubs full of ice, with surgical incisions on their sides, and notes scrawled in lipstick—either on the mirror or across their chests—telling them to call 911, their kidneys have been stolen. The rumors were investigated by various law-enforcement agencies to no avail, and later debunked by the National Kidney Foundation and the United Network for Organ Sharing. As a surgery resident in the 90’s, I found these rumors to be fascinating but implausible. I had performed kidney transplants and concluded that excising a human organ in a hotel room would be very difficult if the surgeon wanted the patient to live, and there is no reason to submerge a postoperative patient in ice. The core temperature drops. The heart fibrillates. The person dies. In 1999 an ad appeared on eBay advertising a human kidney for sale. Bids reached nearly six million dollars before the ad was removed. It may have been a hoax, but the frenzied bidding demonstrated that there were individuals who were willing to pay millions of dollars for a life-saving organ. A few years later I found an article in the New York Times that documented the sale of a kidney by a Brazilian slum dweller to an American woman. The article also described a thriving international black market for human organs. About this time I was ready to write my first novel, and having followed the organ-theft stories for a number of years, I had a ready-made premise: somebody will steal kidneys from a downtrodden group and implant them into rich individuals who are too sick or are unwilling to languish on the transplant waiting list. The end result is The Organ Takers. The story merges fact with fiction to bring the organ-snatcher legend to life. Storylines are drawn from medical topics of both ethical and economic importance, including human organ trafficking, transplant waiting list abuse, tissue engineering and organ fabrication, and human stem-cell research.
Fate, indifferent to the suffering of men, had dealt Michael Smith a bad brain. But it was his fellow man who went beyond indifference, who conspired against Michael without conscience, who stripped him of his humanity when they violated his body for their own gain and on a frozen January morning, discarded him as if he were a bag of trash. It was his fellow man who left him in a dark alley in Midtown Manhattan, left him to wake up alone, freezing under a wool blanket, a pain in his side, a severe pain he didn’t have before. Before what? Before when? He couldn’t remember. He had lost a chunk of time somewhere.
He tried to sit up. A ripping sensation tore through him. He screamed, clenched his eyes tight and lay there, balled up like a fetus. He must’ve been stabbed, may be bleeding to death. He fumbled with the zipper on his coat and felt his shirt.
He went limp with relief, probably a broken rib. He’d cracked one a year ago and it hurt like hell, but not this bad. Maybe he broke two. He put his hand on the ground and tried again to push himself up, made it this time, sat against the wall with legs drawn up and breath held, tears streaming down his face. It felt as if someone had taken a swipe at him with a sword.
After several moments he relaxed, took a shallow breath, and another, then lifted his head and looked around. He was deep in the alley. To the right, a dead end. To the left, the open end. An overflowing dumpster blocked his view of the street. He tried yelling for help but choked on the pain. He listened for cars passing or people talking but heard nothing. New York City was quiet, like three a.m. quiet. He was on his own.
He carefully touched his ribs, feeling for a bulge. There was something there, but it was soft and didn’t hurt. He blew into his hands, opened and closed them a few times and worked the buttonson his shirt, struggling with numb fingers. Not much light, but he could see a bandage taped to his side. White gauze. White and clean like the brightly lit room. He’d been strapped to a bed. For hours? For days? People in hooded baggy suits had done things to him, monitored him with instruments, mumbled but never spoke. He peered at the gauze with dread.
Wide strips of tape secured it in place. Using his thumbnail, he peeled up a corner and pulled. The skin tented up, felt like it was going to rip. He let go, rolled up more of the edge, pinched it tight and yanked.
He blinked, squinted, struggled to focus through the tears and murky light, and what he finally saw drew a wave of nausea up from the pit of his stomach. He shut his eyes and fought the urge to vomit. The pain caused by heaving would be unimaginable. His mind raced, tried to comprehend, but what he had just seen was incomprehensible. Staples. A line of them starting on his side and disappearing around his back.
When he looked again, he saw a long cut stapled together the same way the ER doctors had fixed a gash on his leg some time ago. Con Edison. They did this. They’d been following him for years, their blue vans and trucks parked all over the city, everywhere he went, watching him, the men in hardhats peeking out of manholes, cameras and listening devices hidden in their steam stacks. The baggy suits in the white room were blue like the Con Ed trucks. They had implanted a tracking device inside him. Now they’d be able to follow him without all that equipment. He had to get to Bellevue. Whatever Con Ed put into him, the Bellevue doctors would take it out. He buttoned his shirt and zipped his coat. If he could stand, he could get to the street. If he could get to the street, he’d find help, or help would find him. He shuffled his feet under him, put a hand on the cold ground, and clutching his side, he stood.
He tried to stand up straight. Pain doubled him over. He teetered backward, his butt hitting the wall, then felt dizzy and nearly toppled forward. He waited a moment for the dizziness to clear, then slowly straightened and took a step, then another. Every movement sent ripping jolts through his midsection, and after four or five steps he stopped, the pain intolerable, the shivering uncontrollable. He wanted to sit, but he’d never get up.
He made it to the mouth of the alley and leaned against the corner of the building. Except for a plume of steam rising from a manhole cover, the street was empty. No Con Ed trucks, no steam stacks. Lights were on in some apartments, but the buildings all had stoops. He tried yelling for help, but the effort was feeble. He looked up and down the block, to the Avenues at either end, but he had nothing left. Time to give up.
He relaxed. The shivering eased. His eyelids drifted shut.
A clatter startled him awake. A flurry of yellow cabs passed through the intersection to his right, a hundred feet away. If he could just get there …
He staggered up the sidewalk, his legs heavy, then heavy legs became dead weight, and black curtains lowered over his eyes. As he fell, he reached for the rail at the base of a stoop. He missed, smashing his face into the steps.