Vera's Kidney, Walter's Money: Desperation, Greed and the Global Organ Trade
Part 2: Meeting the Traffickers
The world of organ trafficking revolves around a simple scheme. There are importing and exporting nations. Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Canada are examples of the former, while China, India, the Philippines, Egypt and Moldova are exporting nations. You don't have to be a member of Attac, the international anti-globalization movement, to see the trade as a parable of the global imbalance of power, with organs being transplanted from the poor to the rich, from black and brown to white people, and from south to north.
Walter, the wealthy German businessman, had spent a lot of time in hospitals and operating rooms before he decided to travel to Kosovo. He doesn't want to talk about it, but his son, who also chooses to remain anonymous, explains the family's motives.
He attributes his father's history of suffering to a series of mistakes made by German doctors. According to the son, his father's heart disease was treated incorrectly, and doctors also failed to notice that his kidneys were in poor condition. That's why his father needed dialysis in the first place, Walter's son said. When dialysis becomes necessary, a patient is usually placed on the waiting list for a donor kidney. But it wasn't done in Walter's case, and by the time the family noticed the oversight, valuable time had been lost, says the son.
Then, he continues, there were two incidents in which doctors made mistakes that resulted in unnecessary problems. In one case, a stent that was supposed to keep an artery open accidentally passed through the artery and disappeared. The doctors cut open the father's leg to search for the stent, but found nothing. In another operation, says the son, a doctor punctured an artery with a catheter, and the father almost died.
During one of the next treatments, the father received an infection at the hospital. The drugs he had to take to fight the infection further damaged his kidney.
An Act of Self-Defense
The son is an inconspicuous, soft-spoken man. His account revolves around the shoddy work of the doctors and the wrongs inflicted on his father. The son sees Walter as a victim of malpractice and someone at the mercy of a relentless system. Although he doesn't say so in as many words, it's clear that he considers the family's subsequent decision to help the father with other means to be an act of self-defense.
The son searched the Internet and found a Filipino hospital where, as he believed, a kidney transplant would be an easy procedure. But nothing came of it, and he continued his search. According to Ratel's investigators, Walter transferred 81,892.72 into an account held by the Israelis that the family eventually found. Neither Walter nor his son is willing to comment on the payment.
Vera Shevdko is sitting on the sofa in her small apartment in a low-income Tel Aviv neighborhood far from the sandy beaches where wealthy Russians like to spend their time. A fan pushes around the hot and humid air, and the shabby kitchenette is only three steps from the living room. Between the two is a supporting column covered with plastic ivy. Her dog Don, a pit bull, lies panting on the floor.
Vera talks about the pain she has in her right kidney, which now has to perform the work of two kidneys in filtering toxins out of her body. She likens it to a persistent toothache. She tries to drink a lot of fluids, she says. A large bottle of lemon soda is standing next to her. A 15-centimeter scar runs along the left side of her abdomen.
She should never have done it, she says.
She still remembers the day she picked the number out of the ad. The man who answered the phone had a pleasant voice, says Shevdko, and she met him a while later in a café at the Tel Aviv bus terminal. He looked to be in his early 30s, had blue eyes and spoke Russian. He asked her about her blood type and her general health. Finally, he promised her $10,000 and told her to tell absolutely no one.
No Side Effects?
There were two other women, also potential donors, at a second meeting, this time outside Tel Aviv. A young man showed them his scar, says Shevdko, and he told them that he was feeling well after donating his kidney, and that there were no side effects. The blue-eyed Russian pointed out that many people, including his own grandmother, could grow as old as 80 with only one kidney.
The truth is that organ removal is very dangerous. The recipients return to hospitals in their native countries, where doctors don't ask a lot of questions and provide the best possible post-surgical care, especially to avert the risk of transmission of HIV or hepatitis through the new organs. The clandestine business is, of course, not entirely without risk for the buyers, either.
The suppliers of the organs, on the other hand, often can't expect to see a doctor at all when they return home. They face the risk of infection and postoperative hemorrhage, rising blood pressure and reopening wounds.
American anthropologists and doctors have tracked down and interviewed dozens of organ sellers. Almost all donors reported that their health declined considerably after the risky procedure.
Vera Shevdko knew none of this when she boarded a flight for Istanbul on July 21, 2008. Nevertheless, she was so agitated that she couldn't eat, so she only drank some apple juice.
Another Russian and an Israeli woman were also on the flight. Upon arrival in Istanbul, Shevdko was met by men she had never seen before. The three women were told to hand over their passports, and when they were still in the hotel lobby, the men took a drop of blood from one of their fingers. That, at least, is Shevdko's account.
She flew to Pritina four days later. The customs agents asked a lot of questions, she says. Why, they asked, would a woman from Israel be traveling to a urology clinic in Pritina? Shevdko told the customs agents what the organ traffickers had told her to say, namely that treatment was better in Pritina. One of the agents wasn't convinced, says Shevdko, but after making a few phone calls he finally allowed her to enter the country.
The Man from the Airport
Two cars were waiting at the airport, one for the donors and one for the recipients. Shevdko remembers that it was a long drive, and that the road was no longer paved at the end. It reminded her of her childhood in the Soviet Union. "It felt as if we were driving to the dacha," she says.
The car eventually stopped in front of a modern, pink, two-story building with red roses in the front garden. A sign on the building reads "Klinika Gjermane." The private hospital is on the edge of an industrial zone, and the front windows are darkened. A German doctor is recorded as the owner of the clinic in the register of companies in Pritina.
Although she was already afraid in Turkey, says Shevdko, things became worse "in the villa." She was forced to sign forms in English that she didn't understand. Shevdko recalls that the overseers forbade them from talking to each other and told them that their organs would be going to an American. But, she adds, there was a passport on the table, and it wasn't blue like an American passport, but dark red like a German passport.
Shevdko saw the man from the airport again, next to his wife. They seemed like ordinary people to her, and they seemed nice. She imagined that they had scraped together their money to save the husband's life with a new kidney. She says that she "suddenly felt embarrassed to receive money for my organ." The EULEX investigators have reconstructed who was at the clinic and when. They are convinced that Walter was the older man in the room.
"My whole body was shaking before the operation," says Shevdko. She wanted to run away, and yet she knew that "no one would have let me go. They had paid for my flights and had sent someone to greet me. They would have given me a shot and operated on me anyway. I realized that I had become involved with the mafia." And so she held out her arm when someone came to give her an injection.
- Part 1: Desperation, Greed and the Global Organ Trade
- Part 2: Meeting the Traffickers
- Part 3: Contempt of Humankind
- Part 4: Tracking Down the Suspects
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles