AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – A Dutch television show in which a terminally ill woman would supposedly donate her kidney to one of three contestants was revealed as a hoax Friday.
At the last moment, presenter Patrick Lodiers of the "Big Donor Show" said the woman known as "Lisa" was an actress, not actually dying of a brain tumor as claimed.
The entire exercise was intended to pressure the government into reforming its organ donation laws and raise public awareness of the need for organs, he said.
The three prospective recipients were real patients in need of transplants and had been in on the hoax, the show said.
The program concept had led to widespread criticism for being tasteless and unethical.
But Lodiers said that it was "reality that was shocking" because around 200 people die annually in the Netherlands while waiting for a kidney, and the average waiting time is more than four years — more than in other European countries.
"I thought it was brilliant, really," said Caroline Klingers, a kidney patient who was watching the show at the Kidney Patients Organization headquarters in Bussum, Netherlands.
"I know these transplant doctors, and I thought they'll never go and actually do it. But it's good for the publicity and there are no losers."
The Netherlands' doctors association had called on members not to participate in the program, and questioned its authenticity.
"Given the large medical, psychological, and legal uncertainties around this case, the (association) considers the chance extremely small that it will ever come to an organ transplant," it said.
The show was produced by Endemol, which created "Big Brother" in 1999, introducing the concept of reality TV.
Viewers were called on to vote for their favorite candidate by SMS text message for euro0.60 per vote during the show.
Earlier in the week, the Cabinet declined suggestions from lawmakers to ban the program, saying that would amount to censorship.
BNN had said Lisa had less than six months to live, and would carry out the donation within a month of choosing a winner.
But doctors usually refuse to accept organ donations from terminally ill patients because the operation could hasten their death.
Additionally, under Dutch rules, donors must be friends, or preferably family, of the organ recipient. Meeting on a television program wouldn't qualify.
But a spokeswoman for the Dutch doctor's association said that it was conceivable the transplant could have been carried out abroad. "You can't rule that out," Saskia van der Ree said.
BNN spokeswoman Marieke Saly said earlier Friday that all arrangements for the program were completed, but she declined to comment on where and when the donation would be carried out.
"It's going through," she said.
During the show, 25 kidney patients were vetted by "Lisa," and most were quickly dismissed for being too old, too young, smokers, ex-smokers or unemployed.
"It really hurt watching that," said Tim Duyst, whose wife is awaiting a transplant and cannot work. "You're dismissed in a wave of the hand."
He was one of about 20 patients and family members who gathered at the Kidney Institute in Bussum to watch the show. Duyst said he thought from the start the show was unethical since it forced contestants to in essence compete for their lives, and he was relieved when he found out it wasn't real.
Contestants gave moving pleas for why they should receive the organ. "Lisa" spoke emotionally of her desire to give the gift of life to someone else, even as she herself was dying.
The contestants, identified as Esther Claire, 36, Vincent, 19, and Charlotte, 29, all said afterward they were glad to have taken part.
"I guess we gave everybody a good surprise," Charlotte said.
"Politicians have really dropped the ball" on inspiring more people to become donors, Esther Claire added.