Another organ transplant scandal has shaken the country – the police are accusing doctors of stealing eyes from dead bodies. Doctors are surprised: they had no idea that they were doing something illegal. While doctors walk a fine line between aid and crime and the police run after criminals in white robes, thousands of patients don’t get the aid they need. Their options are disability or death.
The Prosecutor General has reported on the deactivation of a group of black transplantologists in the Kyiv Oblast. A criminal case has been initiated against two heads of department at the Kyiv Oblast Bureau for Forensic Tests and the head of a pathoanatomical department at one of the district hospital in Kyiv. They are accused of breaking the procedure for organ transplants. “The pre-trial investigation has found that these people illegally removed eyeballs from 26 bodies in 2010 when conducting autopsies” stated the press-service of the Kyiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office. “The respondents transferred the organs to an ophthalmology hospital in Kyiv for subsequent transplant.”
Prosecutors claim that the respondents have admitted their guilt in the crimes provided for in Art. 143.1 of the Criminal Code, “Violations of the Legal Procedure for Transplanting Human Organs or Tissues”. They face up to three years in jail.
A knowledgeable source of The Ukrainian Week involved in medicine confirms that the whole thing started with an appeal to the police from the family of a dead man in the Kyiv Oblast. They claimed that their late relative was missing an eye. However, the Ministry of the Interior insists that its staff have found black transplantologists on their own, without any appeals involved. Later, the investigation unit of Kyiv Oblast joined efforts with the Department for the Prevention of Human Trafficking to begin inspections of local mortuaries and found 13 cases of organ harvesting in the Kyiv-Sviatoshyn District and Brovary where doctors removed eyeballs from dead bodies without the consent of the families. After a series of exhumations, this number increased to 26.
Doctors who prefer to stay anonymous say rumors circulated among ophthalmologists in Kyiv at the beginning of this year that the police had demanded a bribe of either UAH 100,000 or USD 100,000 from Iryna Shuliezhko, the Head of one of the Departments at Kyiv Center for Eye Microsurgery to avoid criminal liability. The department had conducted the implantation of selected organs. In February 2011, the author of this article sent two official requests to the Ministry of the Interior concerning this matter, but in both instances, received the same response: “A case has been initiated. The details of the investigation are confidential”. Sources assume that this secrecy results from the fact that one of the “dirty” policemen planned to make money at the doctors’ expense and initiated the case when they refused to play ball.
In fact, Doctor Iryna Shuliezhko who is Head of the Department for Cornea Treatment at the Kyiv Center for Eye Microsurgery refutes any rumors that the police demanding bribes from her. “Nobody asked me for any money,” she says. “I have no idea where this has come from. Back in winter, when the case against pathologists in Kyiv Oblast was initiated, we had the police in our section inspecting our patients’ records. At that time, they talked to all the employees. I’m currently involved in court proceedings as a witness. But I could become a respondent after the court considers the case. I was just doing my best to save people and I continue to do so.”
Ms. Shuliezhko does not deny that she has been involved in surgeries in which organs were illegally transplanted into paitents. “To be honest, I had no idea there had been a law since 1999 that banned taking biological material from dead bodies without their family’s permission,” she claims. “The guys from mortuaries didn’t ask for permission, either. That’s why they are in court now. Our doctors would always go to such places and negotiate to choose anatomical material. I have myself found pathologists in Boyarka and Brovary, both of which are in the Kyiv Oblast, to supply transplant materials for our section. They never requested any money for themselves. If they called me to say that they had the material at 8 a.m. we did the surgery and saved a patient’s sight at 3 p.m.”
Ms. Shuliezhko states that nobody kept these surgeries secret. The patients who needed transplants transferred funds to an insurance company based at the center and got their surgery. The cost varied depending on the instruments and materials involved, starting from UAH 3,000 (USD 375).
The Center stopped cornea transplants a few months ago as mortuary employees are scared, while the families of the deceased do not give consent for organ harvesting. As a result, many patients could lose their sight altogether, due to a shortage of material and funds for treatment abroad.
Meanwhile, the police claim that only part of a much bigger case on the thieves of eyes from the deceased has been submitted to the court. “The court currently has materials on only a few participants,” says Yuriy Kucher, Chief of the Polic Department against Cybercrime and Human Trafficking. “an investigation is on-going on other doctors. The total number of deceased, from whom eyes were harvested is huge. Those who claim that the police demanded bribes should apply to the Prosecutor’s Office. I think it’s insane to demand bribes when a case has already been initiated”.
According to leading transplantologists, the Law “On the Transplant of Human Organs and Other Human Anatomic Materials”, passed 12 years ago, is obsolete and needs revision. Based on the law, organs in Ukraine can only be transplanted from a close family member or a dead body provided that the deceased’s family has given consent. Since most Ukrainian families are quite small, the chances of getting an organ donated from a close family member are few, if any. Sometimes, family members have different blood groups or are sick and thus cannot be donors. Such circumstances push people in need of surgery and walking a fine line between life and death to employ various semi- criminal schemes. They range from searching for donors online to faking certificates about family relations and arranging fake marriages between donors and recipients.
“The problem is not so much about bad laws as it is about the mindset of Ukrainians,” says Professor Ruslan Saliutin, Director of the Coordination Center for Organ, Tissue and Cell Transplants at the Health Ministry of Ukraine. “64% of countries worldwide have similar legislation yet they have no problems with transplants. Other countries have proactive NGOs educating people that donating organs is a necessary thing and nothing criminal. In Spain, even churches promote the donation of organs from dead bodies. In Ukraine, though, family members categorically refuse to donate the organs of their deceased relatives to save people who are still living. If public opinion changes and the donation of bodies to science develops, all patients in need will have the necessary organs. We already have seven transplant centers in Kyiv, Odesa, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and Lviv. There are enough professionals but a catastrophic shortage of anatomical materials.”
Dr. Zis & Co
On 19 October 2007, Michael Zis, a citizen of Israel, was arrested in Donetsk, charged with establishing a transnational group that traded human organs for transplantats. His license was revoked in Israel so he moved to the black market for some cash. As a rule, Moldovans or Ukrainians agreed to sell organs for good prices, i.e. UAH 10,000 to USD 10,000 while each surgery brought USD 135,000 to Mr. Zis’s American account. His business soon faded in Ukraine. Mr. Zis was arrested and released twice followed by a non-guilty verdict from the Donetsk-based court. However, he failed to attain freedom, as he was extradited to Israel where he joined his 10 colleagues in court.
Tutogen, a German company, has featured in scandals on a regular basis. Since 2005, the company, which has representative offices in Ukraine, has been accused of the collection of bones, tissues and cartilage from deceased Ukrainians for the production of bio-implants, to be sold on the global market. Many relatives of the deceased, particularly in Kyiv, have complained that bones in the bodies were replaced by wooden parts without their consent. According to Spiegel, a German magazine, 1,152 bodies of Ukrainians were used to produce medicines. However, Tutogen’s representative office continues to operate in Kyiv, while criminal cases on the violation of the procedure for organ harvesting came to nothing.
In summer 2010, the Ministry of the Interior announced its discovery of illegal kidney transplants. The surgeries were performed by doctors from the widely-respected Shalimov Institute. Three doctors were arrested. The police say the group involved six people. They went to perform surgeries in Baku (Azerbaijan), while dealers delivered donors from Ukraine. Currently, the police are talking about 25 victims and the fact that in addition to violating legislation on transplants, the doctors are also facing a fairly serious charge of “Creating a criminal organization”.