Has someone actually ever woken up in a bathtub full of ice with their kidney stolen, or is it just a popular urban legend? Let’s dive into the facts and fiction.
Steve, a traveling businessman, is in sin city itself, Las Vegas. After a long day of boring meetings, he just wants to unwind with a strong drink at the hotel bar. All of a sudden an absolutely gorgeous woman by the name of Cindy begins to flirt with him. Cindy is so gorgeous in fact, he slips off his wedding ring, just in case ;). After some chit-chat and her grabbing a few more drinks from the bar, she asks if he wants to chill in the privacy of his room. The pair go upstairs and enjoy the rest of their evening.
That is until the morning when Steve wakes up in the bathtub. He is freezing and feels sicker than he ever has in his life. Not your normal “I drank too much last night” sick either, this is a hangover cranked to 11. While he tries to process what is going on he realizes he is sitting in melting ice, for some reason. And that’s when he turns his head and sees his cell phone with a note placed under it. It reads “I have taken your kidney. Call 911 immediately or you will die.”
Variants and Themes
The Kidney Heist urban legend tracks back to at least 1991 in the pop cultural zeitgeist. In the original version, both kidneys are taken and the victim does not make it out alive. Their body is found by someone and it’s only at the hospital that the grim truth is discovered. Eventually, this morphed into the more modern version where only one kidney is taken to allow the victim a chance to survive. It also helps the tale fit neatly into that classic “friend of a friend” format if the victim lives.
Around 1995 or 1996 is when a note explaining what had happened was added. Cordless phones [and eventually cell phones] being more commonplace made leaving a way for the victim to call for help much more realistic than a corded phone. Not only does this increase their chances for survival. But it adds to the tension and isolated feeling of the story when the victim’s fate is literally in their own hands.
As for the solicitation itself, the victim in each variant tends to fall into two categories. The first is the aforementioned out-of-town weary traveler who is normally at least in their 30s. Around 1996 a high school senior or a college freshman became a new type of victim. This character is in a new town for some kind of sporting event.
But the victim is almost always picked up by a member of the opposite sex who is normally way out of their league, or implied to be a sex worker. The versions with the older business person normally involve infidelity. Versions where the victim is younger they are just painted as the naïve. The victim also always has their drink spiked, simply because alcohol easily hides the effects of the drug. This also plays on a very real-world threat in bars that most are aware of, adding to the authenticity of the tale. After the victim starts to get hazy the pair will move to a more remote area only for them to wake up later missing a kidney or two.
The legend normally happened in Vegas until around 1997 when a New Orland version was added that moves from a bar to a party where we almost exclusively see a college or high school-aged victim. These versions made everything a bit more relatable since not everyone travels but most people have been to a party/gathering. People also let their guard down more at parties meaning they are more willing to go off with strangers and sex doesn’t always factor in now. Making the drugging no longer the product of the victim’s own [implied] immoral behavior.
The Kidney Heist in Pop Culture
The representations of this urban legend are too numerous to list, so for brevity, I’ll just hit the highlights. The first pop culture adaptation of this urban legend I can find comes from an April 2nd, 1991 episode of “Law and Order” titled “Sonata for Solo Organ.” The writer claims he’d heard this story from a friend that had assured him it came from the pages of a newspaper. But unsurprisingly that paper has never materialized. Even so, it still adds an air of viability to this tale. There are also references to it in:
- 1993 “The Harvest” (film)
- In 1998 industrial rock duo Kidneythieves formed
- 1998 “Urban Legend” (film)
- It reoccurs in the 2000 sequel “Urban Legends: Final Cut.” Where they added a twist of the 911 call being treated as a prank due to how pervasive this legend is.
- 2001 “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (film)
- 2002 “Dirty Pretty Things” (film) this one adds a variant of illegal migrants caving to pressure and selling their kidneys.
- August 7, 2004 “The Venture Bros.” episode “Dia de los Dangerous!” this one also employs a lesser-used variant where the victim needs to be on a dialysis machine for the rest of their life. Or in this case the rest of the episode.
- 2004 “Saw” Adam wakes up in the bathroom freaking out his kidney may have been stolen. Dr. Gordon assures him that that’s impossible because if it were true, they would either be in extreme pain or dead. Which isn’t super far from the truth.
- April 25, 2006 “Scrubs” episode “My Lunch”
- February 6, 2006 “Las Vegas” episode “Urban Legends”
- 2006, “Nip/Tuck” season 4 has an entire arc around Liz having her kidney stolen. This is also one of the rare instances where we see the victim be seduced by a member of the same sex. Since the character of Liz is very much established to be a lesbian.
- 2008 That Handsome Devil released the song “Viva Discordia“
- 2010 “Iron Man 2” (film)
- 2011 “Trespass” (film)
- 2015 “Jessica Jones” season 1 has an entire subplot about KillGrave stealing Kidneys.
- 2016 “Red Dwarf” episode “Give and Take”
Now for the big question. Is this real? Like most legends; real-life events that mirror this are few and far between but this one has the most real-world impact of any legend I have seen. On February 11 1997 by Houston Chronicle ran an article about the pervasive chain letter involving this legend. “This message, signed by an Austin man identified as an “operations engineering manager,” evidently has been sent via faxes and Internet messages to numerous corporations and organizations nationwide,” wrote
John Makeig. “But, said police and firefighters in Houston and New Orleans, it is utter nonsense. The Austin man, whose name and phone numbers are affixed to the bottom of the “Travelers Beware!” message, would certainly agree. Call his number nowadays and you’ll get this recorded message: “If you’re calling about the story on the Internet, I did not place it.””
While the chain letter is an outright hoax it has had some real-world impact. A 1998 article from Wired
contained a plea from Delaware Valley Transplant Program, saying don’t forward email messages about organ snatching. “It leads people to distrust the system,” said community relations manager Kevin Sparkman. “Anything that would create a cloud of controversy around organ donation, we think is harmful. And this is one of those things that is very persistent.”
The National Kidney Foundation has made a similar plea and asked any individual who claims to have had his or her kidneys illegally removed to step forward and contact them. While this page on their website is now removed, as far as I can tell no one ever has come forward.
When this urban legend moved to New Orleans it caused their Police Department to receive more than a hundred calls about this legend. To combat the misinformation they put up a web page specifically denying this rumor, and fielding calls about the “crisis” became a serious drain on manpower.
This whole urban legend rests on misunderstandings about how a kidney is removed for transplant. An incision needs to be made near the ribs and the kidney needs to be drained of blood. Both of which a novice would have serious issues with. The organ itself needs to be cooled down, not the person, an ice pack would be more practical for incision site pain than a bathtub full of ice. Even if they do get the organ cooling element right, organ transporting containers are huge due to the amount of dry ice needed, drawing attention to the criminal.
All organs taken for transplant are also registered in a database, organs aren’t just shifted about willie-nilly. Clearly, black-market surgeons with black-market organs would skirt this practice. But it’s still worth noting and an organ transplant not in the database would raise questions for any doctor the person receiving the stolen kidney would see in the future.
The World Health Organization produced a publication called the Guiding Principles on Human Cell, Tissue and Organ Transplantation
to clarify the international standards in relation to the practice of organ transplantation. Principle 10, requires the traceability of organ transplants. Principe 1 is consent. We are also making the HUGE assumption in this legend that the organs have been checked for compatibility, both for blood chemistry and size. Otherwise, that organ won’t be any good to anyone. The matching process for donation is vital for everyone involved for precisely this reason.
Real or Not Real?
On December 8th, 1989 a report from Ahmet Koc, who claimed he had been lured to Britain the year before with the promise of a job by Turkish businessmen, was published. But to get this new job he would need a medical check. He went to a hospital which he thought was a hotel and allowed himself to be given an injection which he believed was a blood test. When he came to he was told his appendix had been taken out. Koc then claimed three days later he was told his kidney had been removed and transplanted into another patient in the hospital but that he would be paid a lot of money for it.
What really happened was Koc was one of four people who knowingly sold a kidney that day. In January 1989, Koc went on record in Turkey, likely in an effort to get the organ brokers who’d handled his case into trouble with authorities. That, kind of worked considering one of the two brothers who’d arranged the sale was charged and sentenced to two years in jail. Koc received a two-year suspended sentence for his part in the illegal sale.
But in December 1989 Koc’s story became all the rage in the British press. He was called upon by a General Medical Council’s disciplinary hearing to testify in England against the doctors involved. His testimony, including his bizarre story about waking up dazed and confused in a hospital he thought was a hotel, was widely reported. That is until Koc’s advertisement in a Turkish newspaper offering to sell one of his kidneys came to light. But even with the evidence to the contrary, you can’t unring that bell with the general public. Especially when it’s confirming the stories they already believe to be true. Not to mention what really happened was a lot more dystopian than the splashy headline of the lie.
There is a chance the aforementioned episode of “Law & Order” may have been based on an article about Koc’s story in a December 9, 1989 issue of the Daily Telegraph. It’s never been confirmed but isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
In 1995 India’s parliament passed a bill limiting organ donations to close relatives and imposing prison terms of up to seven years for selling an organ. This led to some middlemen going to areas where local legislatures have not ratified the law and coaxing impoverished people onto the operating table. It’s safe to assume that people selling their organs are beyond the point of desperation, but so far they don’t seem to be unknowingly harvested.
The closest thing I can find to this possibly being real is in 1998 three surgeons and seven others were busted at the Noida Medicare Center in Uttar Pradesh, India. According to the charges made, members of this group approached various unemployed men, holding out the promise of jobs and offering to connect them with those doing the hiring. Victims were advised that a medical examination was required. Then they were told something correctable by a small operation that had turned up in the exam. During the operation and unknown to the patients, one of their kidneys would be removed for resale.
Something similar also happened 10 years later in 2008. When several people were arrested in Gurgaon, India for luring hundreds of laborers to an underground medical facility promising them jobs, then tricking or forcing them into “donating” their kidneys for transplant to wealthy clients. Some sources claim that the police later determined that the primary complainant’s kidneys were both intact. But other sources say, Mohammad Saleem Khan, Shakeel Abdullah, and Naseem Ahmad fell victim to this. About 500 Indians whose kidneys were removed by a team of doctors running an illegal transplant operation, supplying kidneys to the rich, police officials said. The operation was raided and many of the donors were day laborers, like Saleem, who were picked up from the streets with the offer of work. They were driven to a well-equipped private clinic and duped or forced at gunpoint to undergo operations. Others were bicycle rickshaw drivers and impoverished farmers who were persuaded to sell their organs. In total four doctors, five nurses, twenty paramedics, three private hospitals, ten pathology clinics, and five diagnostic centers were involved
In 2001 it was revealed that the true number of organ transplant surgeries in China claims was around 90,000 a year. Which is far more than the Chinese government’s official number, of around 10,000. On October 16, 2018, the U.K. Parliament hosted an event on the practice of organ harvesting in China. In these cases, it seems the organs are mostly coming from detainees.
The bottom line, clearly people’s organs have been taken in a number of shitty ways. It doesn’t seem like any have happened after a night of debauchery with an attractive stranger.
Print Sources Used
“The Kidney Heist,” Too Good to Be True: the Colossal Book of Urban Legends, by Jan Harold. Brunvand, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, pp. 398–402.
“The Kidney Heist .” Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, by Jan Harold Brunvand, ABC-CLIO, 2012, pp. 227–228.