A man testified he tried to halt surgery to harvest his kidney for an illegal sale.
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, of Brooklyn, N.Y, arrives for his sentencing in Trenton, N.J., Wednesday, July, 11, 2012, for what prosecutors say is the first ever federal conviction for illegally selling human kidneys for profit. Rosenbaum pleaded guilty last October to brokering three illegal kidney transplants for New Jersey-based customers in exchange for payments of $120,000 or more.
The case of a man who was caught trafficking in human kidneys in Brooklyn, N.Y., has apparently touched the University of Minnesota hospital.
A donor who said he was paid $25,000 to give up one of his kidneys told a federal court this week that he got cold feet just before the transplant operation at the U hospital, but couldn't stop it before the anesthesia knocked him out. "Before I finished the conversation, I was gone," Elahn Quick testified, and when he woke up, so was his kidney.
Quick, a 31-year-old locksmith from Israel, told his story at a sentencing hearing in New Jersey for Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn, N.Y., man who pleaded guilty to running a black-market operation to buy and sell kidneys for transplant.
University hospital officials would not confirm the account, citing confidentiality laws. But Catherine Garvey, its transplant coordinator, said the hospital has multiple safeguards to make sure kidney donors are not being coerced; if any staff member had heard the man's pleas, "they would have stopped things cold," she said.
Prosecutors said that Rosenbaum, 61, charged $120,000 or more to arrange a transplant for desperate American patients who were unable to find donors on their own and recruited Israeli citizens to sell their kidneys for a fraction of the fee.
As the broker, he also helped both donor and recipient "coordinate a cover story" to mislead hospital staff that the donation was "a purely voluntary act and not a commercial transaction," according to the federal charges.
Scheme ran from 2006 to 2009
Rosenbaum, an Israeli citizen who lives in New York, was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to forfeit $420,000 in fees he collected for brokering the transplants.
He is reportedly the first person in the United States convicted of trafficking in human organs, which is prohibited by federal law. He admitted running the scheme from 2006 to 2009. He was exposed in a sting operation involving an undercover FBI agent.
None of the official complaints mentions the University of Minnesota; they said only that the operations took place outside of New Jersey.
The U has one of the oldest and largest kidney transplant programs in the country. So it's not unusual for patients to arrive from other states, or even other countries, with relatives or friends who say they want to be donors, said Garvey, clinical director of the transplant unit.
She said that would-be donors are screened carefully, mostly to make sure that they're truly acting voluntarily, and not under emotional or other pressure.
"We'll pull them aside, we'll go to a separate consult room," she said, and donors are constantly reminded that they can change their mind "at any time." Some even complain that the message is too negative; "they get tired of hearing it," she said. Most of them, she added, "are great and wonderful people doing a great and wonderful thing."
More than 380,000 Americans receive kidney dialysis, at a cost of $39.4 billion, according to the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Almost 90,000 people are awaiting a kidney transplant.
'People can lie'
About 50 percent of would-be donors are rejected, mostly for medical reasons. But in some cases, they have turned away donors when they suspected something fishy.
Sometimes, "they don't know the name of the recipient," Garvey said; or they're vague about their motivations. Those cases are usually caught early, she said.
Still, they can be fooled, she admits. "People can lie, and people can be good at it," she said.
But Dr. John Lake, a transplant surgeon at the university, says that's "extremely uncommon." The university, he said, is "blessed with a very experienced and very skilled team," adding that he was "quite surprised" when he heard about Quick's story.
Quick's testimony was described as one of the most "riveting moments" in Wednesday's sentencing hearing, according to an account in the Newark Star-Ledger.
Quick testified that he was lying on a hospital bed at the University of Minnesota hospital in 2008, getting anesthesia, when he started having second thoughts.
He said he asked his "caretaker" -- an associate of Rosenbaum, the broker -- if he could still turn back. Quick said the man, who was holding his hand, told him it was not too late. But the next thing he remembered was a nurse shaking him awake, saying: "Wake up, wake up, it's done."
Quick's kidney was transplanted to a Brooklyn man whose family had paid Rosenbaum $150,000, according to the newspaper's account.
"I felt like I was victimized," said Quick.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384