Shame of silence: J. B. Stewart's 'Eye'

September 12, 1999|By Steve Weinberg | By Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

"Blind Eye: How the Medical Establishment Let a Doctor Get Away With Murder," by James B. Stewart. Simon & Schuster. 334 pages. $25.

Readers who have never watched physicians ignore or protect the wrongdoing of other physicians will probably have trouble accepting "Blind Eye" as fact.

But fact it is. Stewart, a celebrated Wall Street Journal reporter who later wrote books exposing Wall Street corruption ("Den of Thieves") and presidential chicanery ("Blood Sport"), this time examines the medical establishment.

More specifically, Stewart traces the twisted path of Dr. Michael Swango, whose hospitalized patients kept dying suspiciously, whose co-workers suffered inexplicably from poisoning. The book traces Swango's career step by step, from Southern Illinois University medical school to Ohio State University hospitals to medical care in Quincy, Ill. (the shared hometown of Swango and Stewart); Newport News, Va.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Stony Brook, Long Island, N.Y.; and the rural regions of Zimbabwe, on the African continent.

In each locale, fellow health-care practitioners could tell something was wrong with Swango's doctoring. In each locale, those in charge did little or nothing until it was too late.

The result: Swango might be the most prolific serial killer in the 20th century. It is quite likely, according to Stewart's research, that he caused at least 60 deaths. Yet he received almost no publicity until Stewart heard about the situation, when it was much too late to bring any of the patients back to life.

Stewart entered the case in September 1997, after receiving a call from Judge Dennis Cashman of Quincy. Stewart had been acquainted with Cashman's family while growing up there.

Cashman was stunned that Swango was still treating patients in 1997. Eleven years earlier, Cashman had presided at a trial in which Swango had been found guilty of poisoning co-workers at an emergency medical service. How could such a person still be licensed to practice medicine?

Cashman recounted Swango's employment history to Stewart, pointing out that hospital administrators and fellow physicians entrusted patients to a man they knew to be a convicted felon. Those in the medical profession seemed blind to the possibility that a doctor could also be a serial killer.

Stewart found that possibility hard to accept, too. It seemed Swango always had an explanation, an excuse. For two years, as Stewart piled up the evidence, he still had trouble accepting the obvious conclusion. He writes, "It was only as I stood in a remote field in Zimbabwe, face to face with one of Swango's [alleged intended] victims, that I became convinced of his guilt. That Keneas Mzezewa would tell substantially the same story as Rena Cooper, a woman he had never met or heard of, who spoke a different language, and who lived a hemisphere away, could not be coincidence."

I came to Stewart's book ready to believe, but only because a decade ago I began research for a magazine article on state medical boards, and how they rarely discipline doctors accused of practicing on patients while drunk or stoned; accused of repeatedly raping patients; accused of failing to keep up with current medical knowledge.

I learned that sometimes medical boards would receive dozens of complaints about the same doctor, from patients unaware of the other complainants, yet do nothing to warn future patients or shut down the practice.

Swango's swath is simply an extension of that sort of self-regulatory failure.

Swango is finally in prison, for lying under oath. He will probably be released next year. The murders he appears to have committed have yet to be prosecuted for lack of reliable evidence. Assuming he is indeed guilty, he knew how to cover his tracks in the hospitals where he practiced. The real crime is that those who enabled him to go on treating patients are unpunished. Most of them continue to be respected physicians, hospital administrators and medical school deans.

Stewart's book names names. If there is any justice, those named will be shamed for the remainder of their lives.

Steve Weinberg edits the monthly magazine of Investigative Reporters & Editors, an international journalism group based at the University of Missouri. He is working on a biography of Ida Tarbell, the turn-of-the-century muckraking writer.

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