Transplant tourist sees one way out


If all goes as planned, Ibrahim El-Sheikh will farewell his wife and two toddlers in the thick of winter, then board a flight to Lahore in Pakistan.

There, the Canberra house painter will be escorted by an unknown middleman from the arrivals hall at the airport to the Aadil Hospital, where he will hand over $27,000 in cash for a kidney he hopes will save his life.

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“This is my last chance,” Mr El-Sheikh, 43, told the Herald. “It’s my only chance. I am dying and no one here is helping me.”

He is one of hundreds of desperate Australians who travel to Third World countries each year to buy organs. Fearful of dying while they wait up to 10 years for a transplant, they scour websites selling everything from corneas to hearts, which are often put on the market by slum-dwellers who need cash to feed their families.

Two months ago two brothers were arrested in India for harvesting kidneys from labourers, sometimes against their wishes. Police say the labourers received about $1000 for the kidneys, which the brothers, who had no medical training, sold to foreigners for up to $37,500.

In China, lungs from a non-smoker can be bought for $29,800, livers for $37,250 and kidneys for about $30,000, while in Pakistan, hospitals rely on medical tourism for the bulk of their funding, performing about 4000 kidney transplants a year, mostly on foreigners.

In many Third World hospitals, kidneys are not evaluated for suitability and are often rejected by the recipient’s body within weeks of surgery. Many organs carry infectious diseases such as HIV or hepatitis. Some operations are not performed by trained doctors and many patients are shunted home unaccompanied, before they are well enough to be discharged.

Mr El-Sheikh knows he might lose his life during the surgery, but he sees no alternative. Refused help by four siblings with the same blood type, and “terrified” by a major heart attack a year ago due to dialysis, he borrowed money from a friend and agreed to pay it back when he returns to work.

“I’m not happy about a poor person selling their kidney, but if I don’t do this, I don’t think I have long to live,” he said.

Offered a transplant in Syria, where his condition was diagnosed while on holidays in 2005, Mr El-Sheikh declined, telling doctors: “I’m Australian, I’ll go home to Australia and have the operation”. Three years later he is still waiting, and has since been told it may be another eight.

“I don’t have eight years to live,” he said. “I’m getting sicker every month. My wife and children never leave home because of me. I am too sick to take them anywhere or do anything. It’s no life for them. I’m letting them down as a husband and a father.” He has five hours of dialysis every second day, driving himself to hospital, against medical orders, because his wife, Issa, does not speak English and has no driver’s licence. “What else can I do? We have no one here in Australia.”

Mr El-Sheikh has twice planned to kill himself but love for his children stopped him. “I look at them and think, ‘I can’t do it’, but I’m not coping. I wake up in the morning, miserable and unable to move. I feel so old and yet I am not. Waiting for a kidney here is killing me. I’ll take this chance because I have to.”