‘I went into lifelong debt’

N.P. is 46. His kidney failure began in adolescence. After spending several years on dialysis, he had a transplant in England, but his body rejected the transplant 25 years later. «I went crazy at the mere thought of going back on the machine. I would rather have died. You can wait up to six years here for a transplant. I started looking immediately for an alternative. I didn’t consider India because I knew what goes on there. Apart from the exploitation, there’s the risk of infection, but I can understand those who choose to go. They are desperate and the process is cheap there.» Someone told him about the Philippines. «I heard there was a loophole in the law. Friends may donate organs. Due to poverty, the hospital has a list of potential donors. You contact the hospital and they arrange everything. The process costs around 80,000 dollars. I met three other Greeks who had gone for the same purpose. The hospital was excellent, nothing like what I had heard about India. They put you in a single room; the staff are exceptional. At the Laiko Hospital [in Athens] they put you in a room with six others. You might get your transplant but die of infection. Doctors in Greece are excellent but the infrastructure is unacceptable.» He agrees that it is tragic for someone to sell a kidney: «I wouldn’t have chosen that option if I could have got help in Greece. And in my desperation to live, I have gone into debt for life. The transplant took place nine months ago and everything went well.» Yiannis, 46, is from Karditsa. He lived for 25 years with a kidney donated by his father. «That operation took place in New York. In 1976, there was no such thing in Greece. Then in 2004, my body rejected the transplant. I went onto the waiting list of the National Transport Organization (EOM) and began dialysis. It was awful. Going back to the situation I had forgotten about after so many years destroyed me. I spent 18 months on the machine and all that time I searched for an alternative. My doctor spoke about China, but when I met someone who had just come back from the Philippines, I didn’t think twice.» He didn’t meet the donor who gave him a kidney, and his life. He paid 80,000 dollars (doctor’s fee, hospitalization, operation and donor’s fee) and came home. Not all trips abroad for a transplant are as successful. Many who go to India – the most desperate and the least wealthy – return in a worse state than when they left. The operations are performed in shacks – guest houses that turn into clinics overnight. Doctors say many patients with kidney failure die from infections soon after their return. In addition, there are Indian workers who either sell their kidneys for 1,500 dollars or are forced to do so at gunpoint. Despair oils the wheels of transplant tourism.