Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Two faces of kidney transplantation

Two men who have played significant roles in kidney transplantation are both named Sonmez.

One is the great Boston College economist Tayfun Sonmez, one of the pioneers of kidney exchange.

The other is the (also) Turkish kidney transplant surgeon Yusuf Sonmez, who is once again in the news for his alleged role in both kidney black markets and in war crimes in Kosovo. In a recent interview in the NY Times, focusing primarily on the black market allegations, he is asked about both the recipients and the donor/vendors: Monster or Savior? Doctor Draws New Scrutiny.

“There are two Yusufs, one my family and friends know and the one created in the press who is a monster— this is a drama, a tragedy,” said Dr. Sonmez, 53, a trim, angular man with intense, gray-green eyes and a graying goatee. “Up to now, I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t harm anybody, counting donors or recipients. I have not committed any kind of social harm to anyone. This is the main thing that I am proud of.”
"Dr. Sonmez is wanted with regard to one of the most troubling prosecutions to emerge recently— a European Union investigation into trafficking in Kosovo in which seven people, mostly prominent local doctors, have been charged with illegal kidney transplants in a private clinic. Dr. Sonmez has not been charged in Kosovo, but the prosecution contends he played a central role in the ring.

"That case has become intertwined with a volatile two-year Council of Europe inquiry that made links between the Kosovo prime minister, Hashim Thaci, and a criminal enterprise of some former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters accused of executing Serbian prisoners in 1999 and 2000 for their organs.

"Dr. Sonmez has denied wrongdoing in either situation, but a Turkish immigrant who lost consciousness at an airport in Kosovo after a kidney removal, and the patient who investigators say received his kidney, both identified Dr. Sonmez as part of the operating team. He says he was only in the operating room offering advice to others.

"Investigators have focused on the role of Dr. Sonmez in 2008 as a surgeon for the Medicus private clinic in a rundown neighborhood in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, where they said kidneys were removed from impoverished immigrants recruited on false promises of payment that they never received. The organs were transplanted to wealthy patients from Canada, Germany, Poland and Israel who paid up to €90,000, or $122,000.
"By his estimate, most of the thousands of transplants he has performed since he began in 1992 involved live, unrelated donors. He said his survival rate was high because he presided over the removal and transplant of kidneys, monitoring patients side by side for 48 hours.

“This is amazing,” he said of the transplant process. “I love it — to watch the changes with the new organ, the changes in the body, to move with the changes, to make changes in the medication.”

"Typically, he said, he requires donors and recipients to submit signed, notarized statements to declare that money has not been exchanged.

"How does he know that desperately poor kidney donors are not being exploited by a murky world of brokers, fixers and wealthy donors with lavish insurance?

I don’t need to ask these questions,” he said, “because I do believe that people have their own authority over their own body. They are not stealing, they are not cheating. So this is the shame of the system. Not their shame.”
"In the next few weeks, Dr. Sonmez and his lawyer are poised to head to Kosovo to give his statements.

They want information about bigger fish,” said Murat Sofuoglu, an old friend and lawyer for Mr. Sonmez, who has been shuttling between Istanbul and Pristina to negotiate terms for the doctor to give a statement to prosecutors.

“Not me,” Dr. Sonmez said, picking at a honey-drenched piece of baklava. “I am not the big fish.”

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