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The Tainted Kidney

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Charles Cullen, left, gagged and bound after his sentencing-hearing protest in Allentown, Pennsylania. His courtoom outburst threatened his chance to donate a kidney to Ernie Peckman, right, the brother of a former girlfriend.  

After Cullen was arrested, New Jersey prosecutors agreed to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for his full cooperation. Cullen would help identify his dead, then spend the rest of his life in prison. He was 44 years old.

Months turned to years at the Somerville jail, and Charles Cullen’s life assumed a regularity he had rarely known as a free man. He had his cell, his spy novels, time to exercise or shower. Uniformed men turned the light off and on, governing day from night. Once a week, he met with his Catholic deacon or the head chaplain, the Reverend Kathleen Roney, and every so often, he never knew when, the guards would escort him across the lawn to the prosecutor’s office, to pull through the case files.

Cullen studied the scrawled medical charts, the arrhythmic EKGs, the final flatlines, and the blood work afterward—the primary investigator in the search for his own victims. There were new charts nearly every week, boxes of them, covering sixteen years of death at nine hospitals. Winter became spring and winter again, but Cullen just kept squirreling through the files with a cup of black coffee, getting thinner, getting it done; eventually, when the investigations were closed and the shouting echoed out, he could take his life sentences into a cell and disappear completely.

Then in August 2005, an envelope arrived at the Somerville jail. By now, Cullen was inured to the interview requests and the hate mail, even the odd “fan letter.” He never answered any of them, of course, but this was something new—a story about a man named Ernie Peckham, clipped with kitchen scissors from a local newspaper on Long Island. In the margin was a note in a girlish cursive: “Can you help?”

Cullen knew about Ernie—a guy about ten years younger than Cullen, with four kids and a wife at home and a job shaping metal in Farmingdale. Ernie was the brother of Cullen’s estranged ex-girlfriend, who was the mother of Cullen’s youngest child—a little girl he had never seen. Maybe he and Ernie had said hi once at a wedding years ago; Cullen couldn’t recall, but they weren’t friends, they weren’t even acquaintances, they certainly weren’t close enough to share organs. But an organ is what Ernie Peckham needed.

Doctors don’t know exactly how or when, but at some point in 2002, Ernie contracted strep. Probably it was just a little scratch that got infected, the sort of thing that either swells up and goes away or takes you out for a week with a sore throat that can be treated with a dose of antibiotics. But Ernie didn’t notice the infection, and it spread, overloading the microscopic filters in both of his kidneys.

Normally, these filters would have been removing toxins from Ernie’s blood; now they were like a sink clogged with hair. Ernie’s body began to bloat with its own poisons, swelling his hands and face and turning his urine the color of cocoa. By the time he saw a doctor, his kidneys were dead. Untreated, he’d be next. Doctors could filter Ernie’s blood three times a week with dialysis, but this was a stopgap measure; what Ernie really needed was a new kidney. Unfortunately, so did 60,000 other Americans. As Ernie’s health deteriorated, the seven-year waiting list for a cadaver donor would become a death sentence.

His only other option was to receive a kidney from a living donor (although most everyone has two kidneys, you only need one). The best way to match kidney with recipient is through a blood relative—but nobody in Ernie’s family, nor any of his friends, was medically eligible to donate. His only chance was to find the perfect stranger. But how many people are willing to donate an organ to someone they don’t know? Worse, the odds that Peckham would be a perfect six-for-six tissue-typed match with any one random donor were incalculably small. Ernie Peckham actually had a better chance of being struck by lightning.

Ernie’s mother, Pat Peckham, contacted the local paper to run a public-interest item with Ernie’s blood type above the hospital’s donation-hotline number. No miracle donor called.

Pat was running out of options for saving her son. And what would it take except a stamp? So, without telling Ernie, she clipped the article out of the paper, stuck it in an envelope to the Somerville prison, and waited for her miracle.

The thing about miracles, you can’t really predict what form they might take. They might come from anyone, even the serial killer who had knocked up her daughter.

The Reverend Kathleen Roney wears rock-collection-size birthstone rings on her fingers and Celtic charms around her clerical collar and paint-on eyebrows that flick like conductor’s batons as she talks. Roney started ministering to Cullen soon after his arrest. She figured the meditation techniques of the Desert Fathers would be appropriate for a man spending life in prison: The “Jesus Prayer” Cullen recited through his Somerset sentencing came from one of Roney’s tutorials.


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