A woman came into the hospital one day claiming she had a GPS tracker sewn into her side. The doctor just rolled his eyes.
He was a surgical resident working in an area of the hospital close to the psychiatric ward, so he often encountered people coming up to him spewing outlandish claims.
But then he noticed she was “put together” and “lucid,” he later told Marketplace in an anonymous interview.
He ordered her an X-ray, and the team crowded around the computer to see the images—in mute horror.
“Embedded in the right side of her flank is a small metallic object only a little bit larger than a grain of rice,” he said. “But it’s there. It’s unequivocally there. She has a tracker in her. And no one was speaking for like five seconds — and in a busy ER that’s saying something.”
Everyone had heard of wearable tech companies experimenting with embeddable tech—but this was different.
The 20-something woman was a victim of sex trafficking, and she had been tagged with an RFID chip, a small glass capsule with a circuit board inside—often used to microchip pets.
“It’s used to tag cats and dogs. And someone had tagged her like an animal, like she was somebody’s pet that they owned,” he said.
Officials and medical personnel believe this 2015 occurrence was far from the first or only instance of a victim of human trafficking undergoing such treatment. More and more, medical industry professionals are realizing they may play a unique role in combatting such trafficking.
Wendy Macias, an ER doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says that unlike law enforcement, doctors and nurses get these privileged moments with their patients—confidential and up-close.
“I can guarantee you that I’ve placed my hands and I’ve examined and I’ve spoken to more trafficking victims than I know I have,” Macias told Marketplace.
A 2014 study found that 88 percent of sex trafficked people end up in ERs or clinics—but traffickers are smart and will move their victims around frequently, meaning even the most vigilant doctors only have a small window of time.
“I want us to help them when we have them in our midst because it may be the last time that they’re there,” said Macias, who advocates for awareness within the industry.
Dr. Dale Carrison at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas is another one of these advocates.
“There’s so many sci-fi movies where they stick a device in somebody. Well guess what? It’s real. It happened,” he said.
“That was a big wake up call for me personally, that, ‘Uh-oh we’re going to another level now.’ And I need to get the word out to all my colleagues, don’t blow this off.”
But it’s also hard for trafficked victims to believe or understand their doctor could be a source of help.
Jolene Capone knows about this doubt and fear firsthand.
Capone grew up running from foster homes, then abusive partners, and then ended up being tricked into prostitution by a man she had thought was trustworthy. The acquaintance named “Darrell” took her out drinking one night, and then she woke up with all her posessions gone—he’d taken all her identification, her phone, her money—and insisted she work as “an escort.”
Just like that, she no longer had any control over her life. Some traffickers lure victims in by isolating them, encourging thoughts of low self-esteem, and then preying on their vulnerabilities. With Darrell, he held her birth certificate and social security card, stealing her identity. He also threatened to hurt her and the people close to her.
“I think a lot of people who aren’t familiar with it, would be like, ‘Well, why didn’t you just walk away?’ You would be amazed just how scared someone could make you,” she said.
He was violent and didn’t tolerate any acting out, even if it was a small act like pocketing $5. “I would get beaten or raped, or starved or screamed at in front of people,” she said.
It ended up being a botched ear piercing—of all things—that led Capone to the ER. There, a nurse asked her some routine questions, like whether she felt safe at home and other inquiries about her situation.
But the questionnaire didn’t make Capone feel safe or that this was her chance to get away—it made her angry, because she thought it seemed like this was just another piece of paperwork the busy nurses were rushing through.
So she lied and said she felt safe—and then went back to Darrell. But in 2012, he was charged with human trafficking and went to federal prison. Capone has since thought back to that night at the ER and wondered what would have happened if she had confided in her nurse.
“Are you going to keep me safe like no matter how bad it is? Like this person could be violent, this person could have a gun. Like you need to be prepared for it all,” she said.
“Even if I did get away, where was I going? Where were they going to put me?” she said. “Were they going to call my mom? There wasn’t a lot of options for me, being someone that really had nobody.”
It led her to eventually agree to sit on the board of advisers at the Freedom Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, which provides healthcare for trafficking survivors.
“They’re kind of like my family now,” she said. She has since changed her name and started studying pre-law with hopes of becoming a federal prosecutor—to put away traffickers like the man who kidnapped her.
“I’m a fighter,” she said. “That’s just who I am.”