Donor wasn't brainwashed, patient says

Hospital denies transplant to Toronto woman when Australian man's family warned he was part of 'kidney cult'

Globe and Mail, Canada/June 6, 2007
By Matt Hartley

The Canadian woman who was to receive a kidney donated by an Australian man disputes characterizations of the young man as a religious "cult" member who was coerced into making the offer.

"There's no way in the world this guy was being coerced," said Sandi Sabloff, who lives in north Toronto and met the potential kidney donor on the Internet. "And anybody who met him knew that. He came here and went through all the psychiatric tests, social workers, everybody. And they all approved him. He's not a crazy guy."

Ms. Sabloff, who suffers from chronic kidney failure, said Toronto General Hospital denied her a kidney transplant from Ashwyn Falkingham, 22, after the hospital became concerned about his involvement with a controversial religious group.

According to Ms. Sabloff, who only has one kidney that works, and not very well, she was supposed to receive a transplant at Toronto General Hospital on April 30, but less than two weeks before the procedure, the hospital pulled the plug. She thinks it's because the hospital felt performing the operation would bring it negative publicity.

Mr. Falkingham is a member of the Jesus Christians, a controversial religious group that observers in Australia and the U.S. have dubbed a "kidney cult" because more than half their members have donated the organs. It's considered to be an expression of spiritual devotion by the group.

Robert Bell, CEO of the University Health Network, which governs Toronto General Hospital, would not comment on Ms. Sabloff's case, saying it is against hospital policy to discuss specific patients. "We need to make sure the [donor] has informed consent for what this is all about without any evidence of coercion and without any evidence of value consideration being given to the donation of the tissue," he said.

Kate and Nick Croft, Mr. Falkingham's mother and stepfather, allege that the leader of the Jesus Christians, David McKay, coerces his followers into donating kidneys in an effort to garner media attention. The couple said they sent several e-mails to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Toronto General, pleading with them not to go through with the transplant, arguing that their son was not acting under his own free will. A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.

Ms. Sabloff summarily dismisses the Crofts' brainwashing allegations. She said Mr. Falkingham was acting under his own free will and was only following his heart.

In an e-mail to the Globe and Mail, Mr. McKay wrote that the hospital was "pretending" to protect Mr. Falkingham by not publicly stating its official reasons for calling off the operation.

"By implication, they are definitely hurting Ash, and the Jesus Christians, because they refuse to also list the REAL reason," he wrote. "Which is they also call off operations if they think adverse publicity will bring criticism on them (in this case, from religious bigots)."

Ms. Sabloff met Mr. Falkingham in August, 2006, through a website called Living Donors Online, an information and message site for potential organ donors and recipients. She said she was put in touch with Mr. Falkingham through Mr. McKay. Mr. McKay explained to her how Mr. Falkingham had intended to donate a kidney to an Australian woman who died before the transplant could take place, and offered to connect them.

Ms. Sabloff said she began trading e-mails and talking on the phone with Mr. Falkingham and he seemed very interested in participating in what they believed would be a landmark international live-organ donation case.

"His intention was actually to try and promote live kidney donation," Ms. Sabloff said.

That October, she said she scheduled an appointment with a doctor at Toronto General Hospital who told her that if the donor passed the requisite mental and physical exams, the hospital would do everything they could to perform the transplant.

Four months later, in February, 2007, Mr. Falkingham said he had a phone interview with an executive committee from the hospital that included a psychiatrist, a social worker and a bioethicist. There, they gave preliminary approval for the transplant to proceed and told him to come to Canada for an in-person evaluation.

He arrived in Toronto on March 19 and the next day he and Ms. Sabloff went to the hospital to begin the second round of tests, which included another in-person meeting with the executive committee as well as other tests to determine tissue compatibility.

A few weeks later, the tests came back positive and the hospital approved the transplant, Ms. Sabloff said.

She was elated. She thought she had finally found a kidney.

Ms. Sabloff said she received a letter from the hospital dated April 13, saying the operation would take place on April 30. But just five days later she received a phone call saying the hospital was reconsidering its decision.

Mr. Falkingham was dismayed. He said he was sent for an evaluation with a forensic psychiatrist who specialized in the field of undue influence, or brainwashing.

"The hospital told me that I was cleared of any suspicion of undue influence," he said. "They believed my motivation for donating was a good one. They believed that I made the decision myself and cleared up any concerns they had about me being a member of the Jesus Christians."

The pair waited for five weeks, and heard nothing from the hospital, they said.

"When he tried to get the psychiatrist's report, they stonewalled him," Ms. Sabloff said. "I just felt like they kind of wanted this whole problem to go away."

Even after issuing their final decision regarding her case, Ms. Sabloff said the hospital said it still considered Mr. Falkingham a "perfect candidate" for the transplant, and that if the opportunity to do the transplant still existed in five years, that they would be willing to consider it.

Ms. Sabloff said her insurance company helped pay for the plane ticket that brought Mr. Falkingham from Sydney to Toronto; however, she paid the balance of the hotel costs and other expenses that he and Mr. McKay incurred during their 11-week stay. Now she's out thousands of dollars, and is still without a kidney transplant.

"I never counted on spending that much," she said. Mr. Falkingham said he still hopes to find a hospital in Australia willing to perform the transplant, but Ms. Sabloff was less optimistic.

"It's an iffy proposition," she said.

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