It seems like everyone has heard the stories about a businessman waking up in a bathtub full of ice. He then finds a note instructing him to call 911 if he wants to live. When he gets to the hospital, he finds out his kidneys have been stolen. This scenario would be terrifying! What could be scarier than having an organ stolen while you sleep? This tale of warning has been passed along by email and word of mouth for years. The question is, where did this story originate? When surveyed, many Americans believe that there is an active black market for human organs and people are targeted in order to steal their organs. This month we will be looking at organ thieves.
The Kidney Heist
A man awakens to find himself lying in a bathtub filled with ice. Groggy, he looks down to read a message written on his chest, which advises him to "Call 911 or you will die." He later finds that one of his kidneys had been stolen for sale on the black market.
History Of The Kindney Thieves
This urban legend is most often titled The Kidney Heist and seems like it first surfaced around the late 1980s and early 1990s. The current version can be traced back to chain letter styled emails that were directed towards men who were traveling to large cities for business. The message warned about a woman who lured a man back to their hotel room under the pretenses of sex, only to wake up the next day to find out they had been drugged and their organs stolen.
Research shows that the stories were based in the United States and in a large city. The victim is always male and was lured by a female. It is always suggested that the female has promised sex, and they return to the man’s hotel room. In some versions, the woman is identified as a prostitute. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that there is always great care taken to preserve the man's life.
The one documented case of organ theft in an industrialized country was debunked shortly after it was reported. In 1989, Ahmet Koc from Turkey reported that he was lured to Britain with a job offer but shortly after he had his kidney stolen. After the kidney was taken, he was paid off and sent home. The story was later debunked when it was found that Kroc posted an ad to sell his kidney. It was discovered that he made up the story about the theft to get more money from the kidney recipient. This incident led to changes in British laws regarding the sale and receipt of organs.
Organ Theft in Culture
Organ theft is represented throughout American culture. Having an organ stolen is an ultimate in personal violation. The thought of someone performing surgery without your knowledge is the thing of nightmares which makes for remarkable stories. Pop culture has capitalized on these types of stories, leading to this theme showing up in many TV shows, movies, and books. In 1991 Law in Order approached this topic with an episode titled Sonata for Solo Organ. Las Vegas followed suit in 2006 with an episode where a man was found in a bathtub full of ice in one of the hotel rooms. Of course, his kidneys had been stolen.
TV are not the only ones who have used this urban legend as inspiration. Scary movies such as The Harvest (1993) and Urban Legend (1998) touch on organ theft in order to elicit fear in their viewers. Bestselling author Riley Sager’s 2019 hit, Lock Every Door, uses the theme of organ theft to create an amazing story where residents of a luxury apartment are part of a black-market organ ring.
Organ Donation and Transplantation
Every year about 6000 people die in the United States every year waiting on an organ transplant and there are about 100,000 people in the US waiting for an organ. There is a fine line for patients on the transplant list. They must be sick enough to qualify for an organ but healthy enough to tolerate transplant. To be placed on the transplant waiting list a patient must meet very specific criteria.
Patients must abstain from drugs, alcohol, tobacco. They are randomly tested and if they test positive, they are removed from the list for a period. People on the organ transplant waiting list must have a diagnosis of end-stage organ failure and have a critical need. While the patient must have organ failure to qualify, they must be healthy enough to tolerate a major surgery. Patients with active cancer do not qualify for organ transplant and there are also age restrictions with those over 70 not being eligible for a non-relative transplant.
Debunking the Kindney Thieves Legend
There has never been a documented, creditable report of someone who had their organ stolen after being lured into a hotel room. To the average person this legend seems possible, but when we dive deeper into the medical requirements of organ transplant this would be near impossible to accomplish in a hotel room.
Organ transplant surgery is a tiny subspecialty of surgery, and each organ has its own expert. For example, a heart transplant surgeon is not necessarily qualified to perform a kidney transplant and vice versa. These specialized surgeons train for years and there are only about 2500 transplant surgeons across all specialties in the US. Transplant surgeons make an average salary of $450,000. With some making over a million dollars every year. This makes them less likely to be motivated by monetary gain.
There are two different teams in organ donation. One team removes or procures the organs and another team transplants the organ into the receiving patient. It takes a whole team to procure organs for the transplant process. Harvesting surgery is complicated and requires more than just a surgeon and a scalpel to remove the desired organ. Surgery will require someone to administer anesthesia, someone to assist with moving organs out of the way so the surgeon can see, and someone to hand items. A the very minimum this type of surgery will require 4 highly trained people.
Anesthesia will play an important part in not only keeping the patient alive but keeping the patient from waking up while their organs are being stolen. A few roofies in a drink isn’t going knock someone out enough to remove their kidneys. While the average person know anesthesia providers put the person to sleep for surgery what they don’t know is that they also insert the breathing tube, monitor the patient’s vital signs, provide medications to rise and lower blood pressure, and keep you asleep until it is time to wake up. Anesthesia providers keep you alive during surgery. You cannot do this type of surgery without someone who is skilled in anesthesia.
Then there is the improbability of performing the surgery alone in a hotel room. Surgery requires a sterile environment and specialized tools and machines. Hotels are far from sterile, and it would take a lot of work to get one ready to perform surgery. The front desk would (hopefully) notice someone wheeling by with an anesthesia machine and sets of sterilized surgical tools. Sterile surgical tools come in large metal crates and would be obvious.
There is also the challenge of scheduling when to steal an organ and matching. Organs must be harvested and transplanted quickly to preserve their function and in almost all retellings of this story care was taken to preserve the life of the victim. It is one thing to kill someone and steal an organ, it is another thing to perform a complicated surgery in a hotel room and keep them alive. By targeting a stranger there is also no guarantee that the patient is going to be a match for the anticipated recipient. Matching goes far beyond just blood type.
There are also many loopholes when it comes to the recipient of the organ. Organs must be transplanted within a few hours of harvesting. The longer the organ is outside the body the less likely it will be functional when transplanted. That leaves many questions unanswered as to where the recipient is having their surgery performed and who is performing that surgery, which is even more complicated than the harvesting. Then there is the post-transplant treatment. Organ recipients have many ongoing medical needs even after a successful transplant. You can’t just pop an organ out of one person and put it in another person. There is a lot of complicated care that goes into that patient, especially in the first month after transplant.
Post-transplant patients require medications to keep their body from rejecting the foreign organ. This medication isn’t something that could just be bought on the street. This medication is also very expensive and unique to the organ the patient received. They wouldn’t be able to fill the medication at the pharmacy. The patient would also require medical records of when and where they had the transplant performed to find continued surgical follow-up. These inconsistencies create even more doubt that this type of illegal activity would have any benefit.
A beautiful woman suggests going back to your hotel, eluding the promises of sex only to drug you and steal your kidneys. On the surface this urban legend seems like a very real risk, but it would be almost impossible to achieve. I have assisted with many surgeries over the years, and preserving life is one of the most difficult things to do in the operating room. The amount of people and equipment this would take is more than would be possible to hide in a hotel room.
However, this urban legend does provide a good warning not to bring strangers back to your room. Just because there is almost no risk of having your kidneys stolen, there is the risk of being robbed or contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Moral of the story: boys and girls please don’t take strange men or women back to your hotel room. Your kidneys are about the only thing that is safe.