When doctors 'get licensed to kill'

HARARE - Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder will be looked at in two parts.

The first part will concentrate on the general impression as well as Swango’s American excursions while the second part will look at his Zimbabwean operations.

Look out for the Zimbabwean face of the story in next Monday’s instalment of Inside the Book Inn.

Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary-general Foster Dongozi one day offered me a book which he asked me to consider for review.

When I looked at the publication details, I felt it was an old book detailing wholly foreign experiences.

I did not feel encouraged. Dongozi, who made invaluable contributions to the book, had mentioned something like “Zimbabwean…” when he handed me the copy of Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of A Doctor Who got Away With Murder.

I put it away immediately and forgot about it. Then one day I was admitted to Makurira Memorial Clinic in Masvingo with a bout of malaria and I had nothing to read.

I sent for the book and could not put it down.

I remember a nurse asking me why I was reading such a book in hospital after briefly telling her what the story was about. I said I just wanted something to read.

However, the story reminded me of British-born Zimbabwean anaesthetist Richard McGowan who around the 1990s was accused of administering epidural morphine to children arguing that since it worked in adults, it would also work in children.

His admission to carrying out anaesthetic experiments on over 500 patients without their knowledge was frightening since it showed how prone to doctors’ manoeuvres patients can be.

Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, who led the prosecution remarked there was “a messenger of death stalking our hospitals” while Mansakh Nagindas, whose son died, described the sentence handed to McGowan as “a mockery of justice”.

McGowan was accused of causing the deaths of Kenyan-born Lavendar Khaminwa,10, Kalpesh Nagindas, two-and-a half years, Tsitsi Chidodo, 4, Irene Papatheocharous, Rose Apinke Osazuwa, 62, with the State securing convictions in the first two charges.

The obvious questions that rattled people’s minds had to do with the vulnerability of sick people when they visit health care centres for assistance.

Sick people need care and usually they put all their trust and hope for survival on the doctors that attend to them.

The book is a harrowing reminder of how gullible authorities can be in allowing someone with a poisoning conviction and allegations of killing patients to continue practicing as a physician.

The book also becomes a call on control associations the world over to alert each other on serial killers in the medical field so that they can not continue to put patients’ lives at risk.

Stewart’s book is a remarkable piece of writing, fortified as it is by startling facts  about the actions of American doctor Michael Swango.

Writing in St Loius Post-Dispatch, Dale Singer argues; “If Swango is guilty — and author James B Stewart builds a persuasive case against him — Stewart also makes a strong argument that he must share responsibility with a medical establishment that let him move freely from State to State, from hospital to hospital, without warning or punishment.”

Agreeing that Stewart writes skillfully, Kirkus Reviews records that “Best-selling author Stewart brings us inside the life of a killer who thrived in a medical establishment where doctors typically cover-up for other doctors, where hospital administrators live in constant fear of litigation, and where regulatory agencies don’t share crucial information.”

We also have an extensive account of police frustration with the lack of cooperation from the medical establishment, notably what we see in Columbus, Ohio.

Ohio State University police tried to investigate Swango’s contribution to the mysterious deaths that rocked the hospital during his days but were continuously frustrated by an establishment more concerned about what this might do to its reputation as well as patients’ perception of the institution afterwards.
 
As such, this played into the hands of Swango who seemed to enjoy every minute of killing without being detected.

Swango travelled, practiced and killed five at Southern Illinois University, five at Ohio State University and five at VA Hospital in Northport, Long Island although Sioux Falls deaths are not recorded.

In Africa, Swango is linked to five deaths at Mnene Mission Hospital in Mberengwa and fifteen at Mpilo Central Hospital; in Bulawayo.

The author says the Federal Bureau of Investigation put the figure of deaths at 60 in the approximately fifteen years the story covers.

There does not seem to be any straightforward reason why Swango poisoned or killed people some of whom were his girlfriends.

The flashback technique the author employs is very effective as readers are kept in suspense until Chapter 10 in order to get the full story of Michael Swango in Zimbabwe although it is introduced in the first chapter of the book.

Coming as it does from a journalist, Blind Eye is based on true events, some of which are reactions to specific historical incidents.

Reference to the Vietnam War and the American involvement there, the reign of Ronald Reagan as US president, the bombing of the World Trade Centre, now commonly known as 9/11.

Most of the characters, especially in Zimbabwe are real people — Christopher Zishiri (although mispelt in the book), Davis Dhlakama, Naboth Chaibva, David Coltart among others are real. The first three at some point worked for the ministry of Health while Coltart is a serving Cabinet minister in the country.

I am also told Keneas Mzezewa and Virgina Sibanda are real people who survived “Hurricane Swango”  and are anxiously waiting to tell their side of the story to anyone willing.

I spoke to Dongozi about his contact with Swango. He says besides meeting the American doctor at Mpilo Central Hospital, he had also met him walking into a pharmacy in Bulawayo city centre.
 
“I am not sure whether he had seen me but I could not tell how he disappeared. I tried to locate him but could not. I do not know the exit door he used,” says Dongozi.

Swango, according to the story, had denied Dongozi an interview when he was pursuing a story for The Chronicle asking him to instead talk to his lawyer Coltart.

On the value of Blind Eye to the Zimbabwean reader, Dongozi says, “The book explores our frailties and vulnerability to people who may come from the first world, and being white (forgive me if I may sound racist) had received the trust of communities in which they worked.

Taking into account that he worked with the rural semi-literate population who looked at him as an angel, when in fact Swango is an ‘angel of death, the worst must have happened.’”

Stewart, a professional journalist has also written Heart of a Soldier, Follow the Story, Blood Sport, Den of Thieves, The Prosecutors and The Partners. - Eddie Zvinonzwa, Chief Sub-Editor

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