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"Stolen" Kidney Myth Circulating: Organ Donation Hurt by Story of Kidney Heist

August 20, 1999

It’s as unbelievable as Bigfoot, as common as alleged Elvis sightings and has the transplant community cringing. It often begins with "This is not a joke," or "Alert for business travelers".   Unfortunately, this message passed by e-mail and word of mouth is anything but the truth.

A tale describing how kidneys were stolen from a college student or business person which originally circulated several years ago, has recently resurfaced, according to reports from members of the transplant community.

In one version of the story currently sailing between e-mail recipients across the country, the victim is a college student. Another version indicates the victim is a business traveler. In both versions, the tale is the same.

The victim is offered a drink by a stranger and accepts it. The drink is spiked with something and the victim wakes up naked in a bathtub filled with ice. A phone is on a nearby table. A note on his chest reads, "Call 911 or you will die." The call is made and the dispatcher asks him to check his back. Two incisions are found and EMTs are sent to the rescue. One version indicates the kidneys were stolen and sold for $10,000 each on the black market.

Additions to the message allege this has happened in New Orleans, Houston, or Las Vegas. Police and rescue squads have been alerted in all three communities, the message says. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Calls to authorities in all three cities prove the message is a hoax. "We have absolutely no report of this sort of thing happening at all," said New Orleans Police Officer Joe Narcisse. "As far as we’re concerned, we have no information on this."

In Houston, Police Spokesman John Leiggio said, "It’s someone's idea of a practical joke. It’s unfortunate that the Internet doesn’t have some kind of watchdogs." Leiggio’s advice: "Ignore it."

Unfortunately, too many people place full trust in a medium, no matter what the message. The Internet, once thought to be a source of entertainment, has become a source of news for millions.

Another version of the story was played on the silver screen in "The Harvest," a David Marconi film. In the film, the star, Miguel Ferrer, is abducted and a kidney is stolen.

The story seems plausible to many. The National Business Travel Association, American Gem Trade Association and Sherwin-Williams Co. issued warnings to their employees.

How the story began
Unfortunately, fiction is alive and well. The message has been seen far and wide. An Internet search for this urban myth indicates it has surfaced in China and Great Britain. Newspaper articles on the "kidney that got away" have appeared in newspapers from New York and Washington, D.C. to California.

The Washington Post first ran a story about the kidney heist myth in April 1991, in which the writer traced the origin of the myth back to a rejected movie script. Others, including U.S. Information Agency officials, believe it was perpetuated during the Cold War by publications seeking to discredit the U.S.

The hoax may have appeared as early as the late 1980s, said Robert Meckel, a former reporter for the Houston Post and now assistant director in the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Meckel said the early story was set in Las Vegas and the alleged victim was a gambler.

Some early versions of the story indicate the story appeared in the Daily Texan at the University of Texas at Austin. Meckel disputes that, adding, "But like vampires and Elvis, urban legends do not die easily."

The Daily Texan at UTA responded to the hoax in December 1996 with an opinion piece. Kidney removal is not an easy procedure, the author wrote, and an amateur job would certainly mean death. "This hoax is "an assault on the credibility of not only The Texan, but also the University—an assault we don’t take lightly," the author wrote.

Effect on donation
Whether it’s a story about stolen kidneys or HIV-infected needles in movie theater seats and in phone booth change returns, many of these urban myths are taken seriously.

Misinformation and rumors surrounding the transplant community and the process of organ donation and allocation can put a damper on future donations, say the experts. For more information visit a list of the top ten myths about donation.

Howard Nathan, president of the Gift of Life Donor Program, the nonprofit organ donor program serving the greater Philadelphia area, called on Internet users to stop forwarding the kidney heist hoax.

"We have seen this false story circulated in many ways - word of mouth, as part of television dramas and on the Internet. The Internet story continues to be circulated and has a negative and harmful impact on the public’s perception of the medical community and the organ donor program," Mr. Nathan said.

While the public has traditionally been supportive of organ donation, focus group research conducted by the former Delaware Valley Transplant Program last year revealed a "significant" level of distrust in the medical community and fear of physicians.

For years, public opinion surveys have demonstrated that people overwhelmingly believe that organ donation is right, said Mr. Nathan. "Asking people to consider death and dying and organ donation is a difficult task. We shouldn’t have to compete with false and outrageous organ donation stories on the Internet or anywhere else."

Uncovering an Internet hoax
An urban legend can appear out of the blue and spread like wildfire crossing a parched forest. It has elements of humor or horror and the horror can be aimed at someone who breaks society’s norms. It often makes for a good story but is almost always false.

The "Kidney Harvest" chain letter is older than the hills, according to the Computer Incident Advisory Capability, which runs a Web site explaining Internet hoaxes. When some people see chain letters or hear of urban myths they actually try to make the situations real, according to an official there. "We’re very aware that if we say it’s just a chain letter or hoax that some crazy out there will try to prove us wrong. We try to educate folks on what to watch out for as far as passing on chain letters," a spokesman said.

If you think you’ve heard an urban legend or received a suspicious e-mail, don’t repeat it and don’t send it along. You might check if it is listed at one of the following Websites.  The Urban Legend Combat Kit site even has standard text so "when someone sends you an urban legend, you can just cut and paste the appropriate response from the list" and send it back to them.

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