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Thursday, March 08, 2007

U.S. recipient harbours fears over origins of donated organ: 'I hope it was a car accident'

Josh is right to worry about the source of his new liver...The 'gift of life', a popular slogan used by organ donors for decades, has taken on a new meaning since the report on organ harvesting from live Falun Gong practitioners has been released. Hiding our heads in the sand is not going to cut it anymore.

Calgary Herald: 2007.03.07 - Three days after arriving at a hospital in Wuhan, China, in January, Josh Weiner received a new liver to replace the one that was failing his 33-year-old body.

Doctors said the donor was a fit young Chinese man who had just perished in a car accident, providing a healthy liver of the right size and blood type.

Weiner's father, Gordon, who footed the $120,000 US bill for the transplant, believes the story.

Yet Josh, who waited unsuccessfully for five years in America for a transplant, worries about allegations the Chinese government executes political prisoners to supply its organ trade.

"I hope it was a car accident, but I don't know, and I don't think anyone will ever know," says the Tempe, Ariz., resident, who suffered from end-stage liver disease and cancer.

"It's not as though you can try to find out the information. The Chinese military . . . you're not going to get much."

Chinese officials deny charges they execute prisoners for their organs, saying any transplants are performed with the help of consenting donors.

The Weiners are one of four families who recently purchased organ transplants in China through a Calgary-based company, Overseas Medical Services.

The cases are sparking debate about the ethics of purchasing transplant surgery in a country where human rights advocates allege executed prisoners are the main source of organs.

Organizations that represent patients in need of transplants, like the Kidney Foundation of Canada, also caution against buying organs overseas, noting many other countries don't have the same standards of medical care.

Commercial transplants, they say, often have a high rate of infection.

While the foundation doesn't endorse the purchase of organs, representatives say they understand why it happens.

"Nobody wants to go overseas and take these risks," says Joyce Van Deurzen, executive director of the foundation's southern Alberta Branch.

"The reason they're doing it is they're desperate."

Indeed, Gordon Weiner said he turned to China when, after years of waiting for a transplant, physicians told Josh he had developed cancer of the liver and would die within a year.

He is convinced the donor for his son's liver was a car accident victim, arguing the Chinese government has cleaned up its transplant industry in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And he is grateful to Calgary-based Overseas Medical Services for facilitating his son's transplant.

"I saved my kid's life," says Gordon, who teaches history at Arizona State University. "I didn't really think I had a choice."

But bioethicists consider the purchase of human organs morally problematic, even for patients who are faced with death if they don't receive a transplant.

Juliet Guichon, who teaches health law and ethics at the University of Calgary, says patients must consider they are fuelling demand for organs in a market where it's difficult to "guarantee the integrity of the donation."

"People who participate in an unjust system perpetuate the injustice," she says.

Josh, however, says he was simply too sick to worry about the source of his new liver when he underwent the transplant a few weeks ago.

Today, he is recovering at his family's Arizona home. Chinese doctors have told him his prognosis is good.

"I'm damn glad I'm alive," he says.

mlang@theherald.canwest.com

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