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NY State Prisoner Receives $400,000 Liver Transplant

by John E. Dannenberg

An NBC News I-Team 10 investigation caused considerable media controversy when it reported that a New York state prisoner with end-stage liver disease had received a $400,000 liver transplant in November, 2005, at state expense. This is significant because most states will not approve transplants for prisoners.

Prisoner Wilfredo Rodriguez, convicted of a string of robberies which involved one victim being shot to death, is doing 8 1/3 to 25 years at maximum security Wende Correctional Facility. Aware that he has become the center of a medical ethics debate, he agreed to talk to I-Team 10's Brett Davidson about it.

In New York State, the liver transplant waiting list is 2,200 people long. Many will die awaiting a donor. The purported ethical question is whether a prisoner who took a life should be entitled to have his life saved at state expense. Rodriguez, who had perhaps two months to live without the donor organ, said he felt that everyone should be entitled to medical care, regardless of their status. A prior non-prisoner recipient, Ronald Goehle, disagreed, stating that he would draw the line for one who has taken a life.

But the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees organ donor waiting lists, puts prisoners on equal humanitarian footing. Dr. David Kaufman, medical director of Strong Memorial Hospital where Rodriguez received his transplant, stated, You get a liver transplant because you meet the very strict criteria, not because we like you," noting that the sickest people get priority.

But Rodriguez' situation will likely be repeated with other prisoners, who languish ever longer in prison under harsher sentencing guidelines while suffering disproportionately from Hepatitis-C, a leading cause of liver transplants. Assemblyman Joe Errigo, defending against taxpayer liability for transplants, opined that it will break the bank." He felt that dying for want of an organ transplant was a consequence of being in prison.
When asked if he thought that people might tear up their organ donor cards if they knew their organ might go to a prisoner, Rodriguez answered, It shouldn't matter. If they're giving it up.... there shouldn't be no preference.

Rodriguez has much to be thankful for. He is eligible for conditional release in May 2006, and said that his transplant gives him the chance to be a productive citizen once he has completed his sentence.


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