Nov. 3, 1985: Pittsburgh Press reporter Andrew Schneider had been reading front-page stories about foreign nationals who came to the U.S. for kidney transplants and who received them almost immediately. Those articles made him suspicious.
“I knew that the waiting list for kidneys at that time was 15,000 people, and the average wait time was nine to 19 months,” he said recently. “And now, we had people coming in and getting them in three weeks?”
He teamed up with fellow Press reporter Mary Pat Flaherty to look into the issue. Together, they spent 10 months reporting on kidney transplantation. They started with local stories, realizing over time that this issue extended beyond U.S. borders, to Canada, Europe and Asia. It was “classic shoe-leather reporting,” Ms. Flaherty said recently.
“We had to prove that the people who got the organs, in this case the wealthy foreign nationals, were not as ill as those being bypassed,” said Mr. Schneider.
Their work took them from Presbyterian University Hospital (now UPMC Presbyterian), where Ms. Flaherty skillfully searched through medical records, to locations across the world. They reported on Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos’ kidney surgeries; they traced organs that were inequitably allocated to London and the United States; they witnessed people in Indian slums trade kidneys for black-and-white televisions, electric fans and money for education or dowries, according to the reporters. What they witnessed was shocking.
“After they sold it, it wasn’t like they were coming into great follow-up care,” said Ms. Flaherty.
Over the course of their investigation, they “found that money, rather than medicine, often sets the path of kidneys from donors to recipients,” according to the Nov. 3 article. The stories led to congressional hearings and new laws limiting organ bartering.
“It was the kind of stuff we hoped for when we busted our butts,” said Mr. Schneider.
The team won a Pulitzer Prize for Specialized Reporting in 1986, for “their investigation of violations and failures in the organ transplantation system in the United States,” according to the Pulitzer website. It was the first Pulitzer won by journalists at The Pittsburgh Press.
“You just go out and do the job, and you hope it makes a difference. I don’t think there’s a formula for winning a Pulitzer,” he said.