|June 18, 2006|
|By Anderson Cooper and staff of CNN’s 360|
COOPER: A man, who had just been told that he was going to die, and then found a reason to hope. A father of six who desperately needs a new liver. He faces a life or death decision. Coming up, you’ll see just how far he will go to save his life and who may suffer because of his choice. Next, on this special edition of 360.
COOPER: Well, until you’ve stared death in the face and been told there is no hope for the organ transplant that you desperately need, you can’t really know how far you’d go to save your own life, right? Or can you know?
This next story literally turns on that question. It is about a dying man, a husband and a father who is desperate to stay alive and the lifeline he chose.
The question as you’re watching this story is, what would you do? What choice would you have made? You’re about to see a dark side, a very dark side of organ transplants. It’s called organ tourism.
Here’s CNN’s Randi Kaye.
ERIC DELEON, NEEDED LIVER TRANSPLANT: Take it down! Take it down! Take it down!
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Eric DeLeon of California, a father of six, desperately needs a liver transplant.
But he’s so sick with nine tumors on his liver, doctors concluded even with a new liver, his chances for survival were low. So they removed him from the U.S. transplant list.
ERIC DELEON: I just knew that cancer would grow and spread throughout my body and I would be another statistic. And I just thought I got to get it out of me.
KAYE: But Eric would not give up. Online he found Web sites offering transplants in China. Many advertised kidney, liver and other transplant surgeries for as much as $200,000. He would have only weeks to make a life or death decision.
DELEON: I didn’t want my kids to watch me wither away and die in front of him so this was either it works or it doesn’t and then it’s cut and dry and done.
KAYE: In fact, people who cannot get transplants travel to China from all over the world.
REP. CHRIS SMITH (R), NEW JERSEY: They house these people in hotels. The dictatorship makes an enormous amount of money.
KAYE (on camera): Chris Smith chairs the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights. With tens of thousands of foreigners paying for transplant surgery in China, he says many do not know the terrible truth about the program.
(Voice-over): Those organs may be surgically cut from an executed death row prisoner without consent. Even worse, to keep the organ as fresh as possible, some organs are said to have been removed before the prisoner even took a last breath.
Human Rights Activist Harry Wu testified before Congress about a doctor who told him he removed an organ from a prisoner who was still alive.
HARRY WU, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Of course, he’s warm, he’s breathing, the blood is still moving out. But we just push very hard, just take the organ, keep it fresh.
KAYE: Other gruesome tales come from this doctor.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The prisoner had not yet died, but instead lay convulsing on the ground. We were ordered to take him to the ambulance anywhere where urologists extracted his kidneys quickly and precisely.
KAYE: Critics say some prisoners in China, both men and women are actually executed for petty crimes, such as tax fraud, embezzlement and bribery. The practice provides an endless supply of organs for needy foreigners willing to pay top dollar.
Amnesty International says China executes more prisoners than all other nations combined. More than 4,700 in the last two years.
According to human rights experts, a single shot to the head, if chest organs are needed; a shot to the body, if the brains or eyes are needed. And recently, China started using what’s called death vans, mobile execution vans where lethal injection is administered inside. Death by injection leaves the whole body intact. And according to Amnesty International, allows for a speedier and more effective extraction of organs.
SMITH: You can’t take prisoners who are on death row, destroy them, murder them, and then take their organs. I mean, that smacks of Nazism, when people were reduced to mere commodities that were wanted only for the organs they could provide.
KAYE: Chinese law details the procedure. Transplant surgeons are actually poised at the execution site. Once shot, the prisoner’s body is quickly placed inside an unmarked blue van like this one. Inside, doctors quickly and secretly remove the organs need.
(On camera): Just last year in a move that shocked the transplant world, China’s deputy health minister acknowledged harvesting organs from Chinese prisoners, but said the organs come only from those who give consent.
But what constitutes consent? In the United States, death row prisoners aren’t allowed to donate their organs. The government believes they can’t truly give consent while behind bars.
(Voice-over): Still, the Chinese government by law considers a signed piece of paper, a fingerprint on a donor form or unclaimed body consent. Though that sounds straightforward, death notices like these are often posted not immediately, but days after an execution. So families have no time to collect the bodies of loved ones.
Regardless, the Chinese government maintains they are not doing anything wrong and are merely performing transplants in accordance with their laws.
DELEON: Good job, Dominic.
KAYE: Back in California, with two small children, the tumors on his liver growing, Eric DeLeon was getting weaker and weaker.
DELEON: My feeling — my gut feeling was I wouldn’t live that long.
KAYE: But what did he really know about what seemed like his last best opportunity to survive? How much did it matter where his liver came from? What would you do?
COOPER: Eric DeLeon is running out of time. The hope that China offers is irresistibly tempting to a dying man.
But does he understand where his new liver might come from? And how far will Eric go to save his life? That’s next on 360.
COOPER: Well, before the break, we introduced you to a man named Eric DeLeon, a cancer patient facing a life or death decision. He had been taken off the waiting list for a new liver here in the U.S., and his only hope, it seemed, would be to travel to China and pay a huge fee, $100,000 or more for the transplant that could save his life. That money would go to the Chinese government.
And as unbelievable and ghoulish as it sounds, China has turned organ transplants into an enterprise with big profit margins. And it is said it is using vulnerable prisoners as a supply chain for desperate people like Eric DeLeon, a father of six.
Our story begins with CNN’s Randi Kaye.
KAYE: For Eric DeLeon, it is a race against the clock. Nine cancerous tumors are eating away at his liver. Chemotherapy hardly made a dent. And because his cancer will likely come back, doctors in the United States have taken Eric off the transplant list. But Eric is refusing to give up, refusing to die.
DELEON: I said, I’m going to beat this. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get this done. I’m not going to leave my family behind.
KAYE: Eric’s doctors aren’t nearly as confident. A transplant coordinator at Eric’s California hospital wrote this note, “I guess he is toast and is looking to get a TX (transplant) in China. Oh well life is sweet.”
A world away, after mortgaging his home, Eric finds hope. China is offering organ transplants to foreign patients willing to pay whatever it costs. It’s called organ tourism. Eric finds a Chinese transplant service. Two weeks later, Eric and his wife are in Shanghai.
(On camera): You were never given any indication that your husband’s new liver may come from a prisoner?
LORI DELEON, ERIC’S WIFE: Not — no. We weren’t told beforehand that this is where it is coming from. We weren’t told after.
KAYE (voice-over): With more than 4,700 prisoners executed in China over the last two years, according to Amnesty International, there is no shortage of organs. But thing organs may be coming from prisoners who did not provide consent. Critics say some organs in China are even taken before the prisoner is actually dead.
(On camera): Remember, not any donor is suitable because of the risk of rejection. Blood and tissue types must match as closely as possible.
In China, Eric and other would be recipients provide a blood sample. Then Chinese doctors find a match. But for some activists and physicians, that raises the question about the timing of certain executions.
DELEON: If somebody was killed for me, yes, I would feel bad. But there is no way of knowing that.
KAYE (voice-over): The Chinese hospital gave Eric a cell phone and instructions. He and his wife should enjoy the sites until the cell phone rang. That would signal a matching organ was available.
Though nervous, a new liver seemed all but certain, they did enjoy being tourists.
Then just two weeks later, the phone rang. After five and a half hours in the operating room, Eric had a healthy new liver. A second chance at life. U.S. doctors are seeing more and more transplant patients who have returned from China.
DR. THOMAS DIFLO, TRANSPLANT SURGEON, NYU MEDICAL CENTER: Whatever that source might be, one can speculate about. However, there is significant correlation between the actual number of executions that are done at any particular time and the number of transplants that are done.
KAYE: Some doctors like New York Transplant Surgeon Thomas Diflo believe what may be happening to prisoners in China is a gross violation of human rights. He refuses to treat people who have had surgery in China.
Dr. Diflo recalls the first time he heard about it. It was a female patient.
DIFLO: I said where did you get your organ? And she said from an executed prisoner.
KAYE: Dr. Diflo was horrified. So what is the United States doing to stop organ tourism?
Chris Smith and more than a dozen other Congressmen wrote this letter to the president of China, demanding the practice be changed. No response.
SMITH: The Chinese government, unfortunately, is largely tone deaf when it has come to human rights.
KAYE: The Chinese government refused our request for an interview, But issued this statement to CNN: “The reports about China’s random transplant of organs from executed criminals are untrue and a malicious slander against (the) Chinese judiciary system.” Adding, “In China, it is very prudent to use organs from death penalty criminals.”
SMITH: The bigger the lie, the better people will swallow it. And this is a big lie.
KAYE: As for Eric DeLeon, he says the answer is more donors in the U.S. More than 90,000 people are on the transplant waiting list in the United States today. Last year, 6,268 people died while waiting.
Still, Dr. Diflo call’s Eric’s decision ethically irresponsible and unacceptable. Eric has no regret.
(On camera): What if they didn’t consent?
DELEON: If they didn’t consent, that’s a hard question.
KAYE: Would you still want that liver?
DELEON: No, I don’t think I would. But, I don’t think I’ll ever know that.
L. DELEON: Everybody has the right to their own opinion. If you’re not in the shoes that my husband was in, or my position where, you know, you’re so close to home with it, it is very hard for you to even judge somebody or state what you would or wouldn’t do.
KAYE (voice-over): So while the foreign powers figure out how to come to terms on organ tourism, Eric’s children continue to celebrate their dad’s recovery.
DOMINIC DELEON, ERIC’S SON: And I looked in there, in his shirt, I felt the liver.
KAYE (on camera): You felt the liver in his shirt? Did you hug him and tell him you loved him?
D. DELEON: Yes.
KAYE: What did you say to him?
D. DELEON: I love you.
KAYE (voice-over): With a 90 percent chance his cancer will return and no spot on the transplant list, Eric is making the most of his time with family. And quietly thanking the stranger who saved him, whether he did so willingly or not.