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The Girl & the UCLA Gangster Transplant – UPDATED


As I read the very skillfully reported story in Friday’s Los Angeles Times
about the four Japanese gangsters who received liver transplants at UCLA medical center, I thought immediately of Kelli Jaunsen. Kelli is a lovely 25 year old woman whom UCLA turned down for a heart and liver transplant, although she needed the surgery to save her life. (The above photo is of Kelli. Here’s a link to her website.)

In the Times article, only one of the four transplant recipients is named,
a gang leader named Tadamasa Goto, who had previously been barred from entering the US because of his criminal activity. All four gangsters got their transplants in the time period between 2000 and 2004. Kelli applied to UCLA and was examined during 2003-2004, rejected in 2005.

Now, of course, Kelli Jaunsen needed both a heart and a liver.
So I guess we can be comforted in knowing that none of the four Japanese gangsters got a liver that could have been Kelli’s. But when the California Transplant Donor Network reports that, right now, every day, 18 Americans die waiting for a transplant, this story becomes more troubling. In 2006, more than 6,000 transplant candidates – one person every 90 minutes – died while awaiting transplantation.

I got to know Kelli Jaunsen and her family
when last year I was asked to write about her battle to survive for the Reader’s Digest. What I did not print in the RD story was all I was told—both by Kelli’s family, and by other transplant docs— about the cavalier way Kelli was treated by the UCLA team.

Kelli’s was not the first story I did about someone getting turned down
by a University of California team for an organ transplant. In 1996 I wrote about Sandra Jensen who was turned down by UC San Diego (and Stanford) for the heart lung transplant needed to save her life. Why? Because she had Down Syndrome, and she was rejected because of her disability. Put more simply, the teams were afraid she was too dumb to take her medication.

Sandra’s situation taught me much about the complexity of the human brain and spirit.
She had an IQ of 45. and there were many things she couldn’t do. Driving a car wasn’t safe for her. But she also founded an activist organization for people with mental disabilities, was in demand as a public speaker, had a wicked sense of humor, and was a prodigy in her ablity to sense the moods of others. In a lifetime of meeting and interviewing remarkable people, Sandra Jensen stills stands out as one of the most remarkable I’ve ever met.

I followed Sandra’s case for the Los Angeles Times Magazine
(when that magazine still did stories that mattered), and went with Sandra to her last interview at Stanford, at the end of which, they reconsidered and agreed to take her case. Sandra got her transplant, it was successful, the Stanford docs were heroes, and hers became a famous case that is still cited when transplant ethics are discussed.

But now back to Kelli: After UCLA said no, Kelli’s father figured his daughter’s last chance was Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Cedars saw Kelli and, while her case was a risky one, agreed to put her on the list and, in 2007, after Kelli became nearly too sick for the surgery, she finally got her new heart and liver, courtesy of the excellent Cedars team. (The Cedars docs, whom I interviewed extensively, clearly became very invested in Kelli’s case.)

I get regular updates from Kelli’s family
and I’m glad to say that this lovely, bright, soulful young woman is doing well and is starting to have something approaching a normal life.

No thanks to UCLA’s transplant team.

The scary part is how easily it might have been otherwise. It was, frankly, a near miracle that both of these women didn’t die while they were on the transplant list—waiting to move far enough up the list so that they’d be next in line if there was an organ fit.

Kelli was on the list for a year and a half.
She was lucky. Most people wait and average of three years. As I said above, thousands never get organs at all; they die waiting.

Not so, Japanese gang leader Tadamasa Goto, who was in the US two months before he got his transplant.

Oh, one more thing. When Kelli applied to UCLA for the transplant,
there were some questions about her insurance. In other words, it was unclear who was going to pay for the operation. The situation was later resolved and her insurance paid all. Plus a mystery benefactor came forward and offered to pay if the insurance didn’t. But when UCLA’s team spent seven months dithering over whether to take Kelli, the money issue had yet to be settled.

Tadamasa Goto personally paid the full freight for his transplant with none of the discounts that insurance carriers require.

But I’m sure that had nothing to do with UCLA’s life and death decision making. At least I hope not.

One senses there is a lot more to this story.
Kudos to John M. Glionna and Charles Ornstein for investigating this story to begin with.

Now we await Part II.


Well, on Saturday Charlie Ornstein and John Glionna gave us Part II

. Two of the Japanese gangsters who got transplants gave a hundred grand to the hospital a short time later. This is not to say that the UCLA transplant team knew in advance. But the paragraphs that were interesting are the following:

There was this from Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania
, which also has one of the nations top liver transplant teams.

“It starts to defy credulity that you’re not going to be curious
about who these people are, if only to ask them for more money down the road,” he said. “Any development officer who didn’t follow up a $100,000 gift with a check of who this guy is and who his friends are would be an ex-development officer.”

Wealthy foreigners, he added, are attractive to transplant programs
because not only do they pay the full cost for their procedures, but they often make gifts of gratitude later.


…Dr. David Mulligan, a liver transplant surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix
, took issue with UCLA’s statement that it does not make moral decisions when it adds patients to its transplant waiting list. He said transplant professionals make such decisions every day.

“By saying that we don’t impose any kind of a moral judgment on people is not entirely complete,” he said, “because I think that every transplant center has members of the [selection] committee who are social workers and financial aid advisors and psychiatrists who are intensely involved in the estimation of every potential recipient and their ability to progress with a full and long-standing recovery.”

Once again, why did Tadamasa Goto get a liver transplant two months after he arrived in the US while others on UCLA’s list wait as long as three years? This and other questions remain to be answered.

Charlie Ornstein assures me that he and Glionna are still aggressively following the story, so stay tuned.


  • Celeste: …one of the four transplant recipients is…a gang leader…who had previously been barred from entering the US because of his criminal activity.

    This must have been tough for you, Celeste–being against a criminal gang leader wanting to get into this country illegally and gaining access our medical system.

    I was involved in a transplant organization for years and watched friends of mine die who couldn’t get a match or who became too frail for the surgery. We raised millions of dollars, but sometimes that money couldn’t help those in need because of other factors. I’m glad that it finally worked out for the young lady in your story.

    Now, maybe we all can get on the same page and oppose putting the interests of U.S. citizens ahead of gang members from other countries. Next time, send these crooks to the LA County jail for medical care.

  • Paying full freight for the transplant isn’t all that eyebrow raising, but one could wonder if UCLA’s institutional donor list is fully transparent.

  • Woody, this wasn’t in the least tough.

    Most of our gang problem in America is caused by American citizens. ( I don’t care what the xenophobes are telling you, the percentage of gang members who are not citizens, is comparatively small).

    And the only non-citizen gang members I’ve gone to bat for are those who’ve been here since they were young children and are absolutely positively Made In America, whatever their country of origin.

    This guy was a Japanese gang lord who appears to have been able to use money and a deal with the FBI to get a transplant—which meant, given the critical organ shortage in America, that somebody else didn’t get one.

    And according to the stats, that somebody else stands a good chance of having been somebody under 18. In, 2003, for instance, smack in the middle of the time the Japanese gangsters got their operations, 2,200 children in the United States were waiting for a liver transplant.

    So, no, this wasn’t a tough issue for me at all.

  • Most of our gang problem in America is caused by American citizens. ( I don’t care what the xenophobes are telling you, the percentage of gang members who are not citizens, is comparatively small).

    About 16 years ago I was in Belize on vacation. There is a significant Belizean immigrant community in LA (I don’t know where) and people in Belize were complaining that one of the newest imports from the US were chapters of the Cirps and Bloods in Belize.

  • Randy, those “imported” gangsters were Belizeans who came to the US and then back home. But we get plenty here in L A who are fully trained at home — jewel thieves from Columbia who follow home and rob people visiting the jewelry district is one gang that’s been in the news; those trained in the civil wars of Salvador, Guatemala, the drug mobsters from Columbia and Mexico, all bring their “talents” here. Look at what’s happening in Mexico and even on the U. S. side of the border, and tell me that Americans are to blame for that, too.

    BYW, in Belize, did you get to Lamanai? It’s still being excavated and has very few tourists compared to sites in Mexico, and you have to access it by foot from the river, so it was really cool. Our guide had to walk ahead hacking the jungle with machete, it grows back on a weekly basis. And the sound of the howler monkey… Most of the villagers along the way were totally happy and mellow, and our guide said they’re all stone and grow pot. Ah, Belize… Most people who go for the diving and beaches never see this part.

  • Actually a few of them were born in LA, but they adopted the local gang colors: Crips and Bloods. I never said America was to blame, I merely pointed out that we have some of our home grown gangs.

    I went to Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and Caracol. Didn’t have time for Lamanai. I agree with you, though: I did the surf and tur and enjoyed the turf as much if not more.

  • Well, we should focus on how someone from another country can come here and get preferred treatment over our citizens. Also, I wonder why anyone could come here when France has so much better a system, according to some.

  • Woody you’re asking the question I want answered. I want to know how triage was performed and, as Listener said, I want some transparency about the criteria that came into play here.

    About the second part of your comment, I know you’re needling, but the real answer is that UCLA has one of the best and most experienced liver transplant teams in the world. In the US, they’re the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to liver transplants, which is why Kelli J. hoped to go there.

  • Sad article. The Yakuza is different beast than your Crips and Bloods. Check out the fantastic book Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld by David E. Kaplan and Alex Dubrow for more on the Yakuza’s unique international organized crime activities.

    While I sure there will be much focus on the ethical failure of UCLA’s Medical Center, I would also like to know more of the story on the FBI got duped.

  • Of course criminals shouldn’t be coming here to jump ahead in line of local patients, but money talks. And how was UCLA supposed to have a failsafe check, when our local law enforcement at ALL levels, from the cops to Sheriffs to ICE, often fails to identify illegal gangbangers and lets them out on the street — Pedro Espinoza being just an infamous case.

    Not to glorify the Yakuza, but they sure are different from the local variety, whether Crips and Bloods or LaEme’s groups – – they don’t involve the innocent public, and in fact condemn petty crime. There’s so little crime in Japan, if feels eerie to feel so safe, to know if you forget your videobag on a bus, it will be left untouched and returned to you (happened a couple of times). But yeah, they’re a scarily sophisticated and cold bunch when it comes to the big stuff.

  • Perhaps like some that comment here, I was a widower. When my first wife died, she had already made arrangements to be an organ donor as had I. Fortunately, when she passed away they were able to use for transplanting skin for severe burn victims, corneas for two blind people restoring partian vision, bone marrow for two lukemia victims. She is gone for some 12 years, she lives on because of transplanting.

    Continue this fight Celeste, it is well worth the effort.

  • GM,

    God bless her for her gift. One of the most moving subway ads here in NY mentions how Jerry Orbach donated his corneas after he died so that others could see.

    Which is a reminder that everyone should remember to sign their donor section on their driver’s license.

  • Amen Randy. Orbach was a mensch! Everyone should consider donating and the drivers license is a good way to do it but that doesn’t always work. I also have ICE on my cell phone. It stands for In Case of Emergency and lists my emergency contact and a note that I’m an organ donor.

  • Thanks for telling that very difficult personal story, GM. The phone idea is a good one. I also have made sure to make it clear to my family.

    Jay, I’d like to know more about the FBI connection too.

  • I just watched a show on Alaska–the new frontier. It showed a polar bear trying to catch an arctic wolf. Who am I supposed to be for?

  • Thank you for doing a story like this….as a 28 year old woman with a monthly share of cost medi-cal of $1250 (yes monthly) I am VERY worried about the money and politics at UCLA specifically — I am currently waiting to be put on the list at UCLA for a liver and have already gotten slow responses and several follow-up calls JUST on my insurance (and I am not even on their list yet) they warned me that the work up itself is VERY expensive… As if I have a choice. hehe (MELD SCORE 14)

  • I cannot for the life of me understand what happened to my daughter, Belinda. With all the talk of how difficult it is to get a liver, Belinda got an emergency transplant after being transferred twice, once from Olympia Medical Center to Hollywood Community Hospital and then from there to UCLA. HCH discontinued the protocol for acetaminophen toxicity begun at Olympia and allowed her to go into a coma. UCLA began the protocol again when she arrived. All week long after the transplant (which was medically successful) the staff was nagging me about donating Belinda’s organs. Finally they got me in a room alone and closed the door (so no one could hear me scream) They told me they had declared her brain dead and would I donate organs. A lot of this is a blur as I became quite hysterical. They told me state law would not allow her to stay connected if brain dead. Also there was a patient in the ER who needed the ventilator and ICU bed. She would have to be disconnected in an hour! I was alone – no attorney, no family present! At first I said no but then asked what they would do if I agreed. They told me she would stay on the ventilator for another day (for more tests). When I asked about the patient in the ER, they said not to worry, he’d be taken care of. Hmm. What doesn’t seem right here? I did agree so we would have a chance to say our goodbyes. I never heard from ANYONE receiving ANY of Belinda’s organs or tissue!!!! My beautiful, talented daughter – the child of a deceased rock star – is gone. No answers. No accountability. How could a Tylenol OD end so badly?!!!!!

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