Preview: What
Am I Worth?

Richard Smirke finds out about a scientific new production that looks at organ donation through performance and puppetry

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How much is your body worth in purely cash terms? From a philosophical point of view, it’s an impossible riddle, but when examined within the context of organ donation the question throws up some surprising answers. According to an often-quoted 2003 article in Wired magazine, the human cadaver has a total market price of over $45 million (approximately £28 million) when comprehensibly broken down into its valuable fluids, tissues, DNA, organs and germ-fighting antibodies.

In its original report (re-published last year) Wired proposed that a single lung is worth over $100,000, while bone marrow is priced at $23 million, based on 1,000 grams at $23,000 per gram. Of course, those figures are largely hypothetical, projected estimates based on the lucrative legal donor business in America. Nor does Wired’s valuation take into account the black market for organ transplantation that exists globally. In India, for instance, there are numerous reports of destitute villagers selling their kidneys in exchange for tiny sums. A 2011 report from the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, meanwhile, identified several potential victims that had been trafficked “specifically for organ harvesting”.

The details may sound ghoulish, but thanks to advances in medicine, the existence of a giant global economy – both legal and illegal – in the sale of body parts is a vital reality. “It’s a weird system for us to think about being in a country where we have a free health service, but in a lot of places these are justifiable transactions,” says Manchester-based Dr Tuheen Huda.

It is Huda who has taken his own experiences of working alongside donor patients in the intensive care ward of a North West hospital and transformed them into a unique and fascinating theatre production entitled What Am I Worth?

“I encounter a lot of patients that have transplants,” explains Huda of the show’s genesis. “Sometimes they fail and sometimes they come from a live person, which puts an added pressure on the recipient. That started me thinking: ‘What makes one person worth more than another? What makes someone get picked to have a kidney transplant and other people not? Also where do these organs come from?’”

The resulting production is built upon dozens of interviews that Huda carried out with patients, donors and surgeons as part of his theatrical quest to explore the medical science, psychology and ethics of organ transplantation. Audio extracts from those interviews will be played throughout the show, which will also feature a colourful mix of puppetry and performance led by Huda himself, playing what he describes as “a rather eccentric doctor”.

The research and writing of What Am I Worth? additionally saw the self-styled Mad Hatter of medicine conduct workshops with community groups in the North West.

“Getting their ideas and opinions really informed the process,” he says. Huda continues to combine part-time duties in intensive care alongside a busy roster of theatrical endeavours. He adds that while the science behind organ transplantation is a very serious business, the show he has written sets out to balance thought-provoking education with entertainment.

“It’s a tricky tight-rope to walk, but I have a very macabre sense of humour and so does the director [Montserrat Gili]. We’re exploiting that.” But there is also a serious heart to what Huda is attempting. Following the show’s premiere as part of Manchester Science Festival, he hopes to further develop What Am I Worth? and tour it nationally.

“I want people to start thinking about how this relates to them and understand that this isn’t something that just happens to others. That actually we’re all completely interconnected and you never know who is going to need a transplant. It can be as easy as going on holiday, getting a virus and without realising it, you have no kidneys anymore.”

What Am I Worth? is at Contact Theatre, Manchester, 31 October to 2 November

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