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What is a kidney worth?

(Page 3 of 11)

But $500 is more than Hernani has ever held in his hands. Captain Ivan tells him to make sure Daisy, Hernani's wife, has enough for when he's gone, and to buy some new clothes.

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Hernani hardly has to be told twice. Within an hour, he's walking through the sliding doors of the Shopping Recife mall and into a new life. The lights are bright and the giant windows are filled with personal beer kegs, colorful shirts, and tiny cameras that seem to seduce him, whispering: You've got money now, you can afford it, come in, buy me.

Hernani quickly succumbs to the mall's sirens. He buys five or six polo shirts. He buys a new pair of lace-up shoes. He buys two pairs of jeans, tripling the number of long pants in his wardrobe. He goes to the food court and fulfills a lifelong dream of buying a cappuccino. At the supermarket he fills his cart with rice, beans, bread, milk, eggs, and the ultimate luxury food - meat. For about $2 he buys enough beef to feed his family for a month.

This is just the beginning, he thinks, as he sits down later that night at a fancy restaurant. Things are different now. I am somebody. I'm a consumer.

* * *

But when he opens the metal door to his house just after midnight, he realizes money can't change everything. Daisy is lying on the carpet they call their bed. She's angry. She knows he's been to see his mistress, Antonia. And she knows he has spent most of the money on himself, even though it was supposed to be the down payment on their new life. Yet no matter how much she has come to detest him over the past few years, she can't stop herself from worrying.

"Don't go," she tells him as he lies down beside her. "You don't know what might happen. They could do anything, take anything. You don't know who they are or what they want."

"Shut up," Hernani barks. "Let me go to sleep."

"It could be a trap, Hernani," she persists. "You might not get out alive."

Actually, in this brave new world of kidney selling, donors rarely die. But Daisy's fears aren't totally unfounded. In India, about 2,000 people sell a kidney each year. One study there in 2002 found 86 percent of organ sellers saying they had significant declines in their health in the three years after surgery. In the eastern European nation of Moldova, some 300 peasants sold their kidneys between 1999 and 2002. A study by Organs Watch found 79 percent of Moldovan donors with health problems in the months and years after the procedure.

But in the darkness of their house that night, with the promise of a payday to beat all paydays, Hernani ignores his wife's anxious pleading. "Daisy, I'm doing this," he says, cursing her. More harsh words are exchanged, and she flees to the next room to sleep with her son.

The next morning he pecks her on the cheek, slips quietly out the door, and heads to the airport.

* * *

Hernani lands in the lush, hilly city of Durban, which sits on the Indian Ocean. How different and luxurious things are here, he thinks. The house where his hosts keep him and several other Brazilian kidney donors is enormous. The living room alone is bigger than his whole house back home. There's even a hot tub. An interpreter stays with them all day, and a facilitator buys them a CD player so they can dance around the living room to Brazilian songs that remind them of home. Sometimes the hosts take them out to dinner. Hernani, who rarely has enough money to buy even pork, tries ostrich meat.

October 2002 blends into November. Mostly, they spend their days lying about the house, waiting for the call. When it finally comes, Hernani is whisked off to St. Augustine's Hospital, a sprawling modern complex set high on a green hillside overlooking the ocean. He and the others are, after all, here for business.