Blind Eye: How the Medical Establishment Let a Doctor Get Away With Murder
by James B. Stewart, Simon & Schuster, 1999, 334 pages.
Could the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history have been a practicing physician? And could he be coming to a hospital near you?
That's the question James Stewart, author of the critically acclaimed
Den of Thieves
Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries
poses in his latest tome, ultimately answering in the affirmative.
Using the same investigative journalism tactics that have served him so well in the past, Stewart traces the murderous route that Dr. Michael Swango allegedly took in the 1980s and 1990s, cutting a swath through Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota, Long Island and Zimbabwe. Swango's trail ends -- for now -- at the state penitentiary in Oregon, where he is serving a 42-month sentence for fraudulently gaining admission to a medical residency program. He will be eligible for parole in the year 2000.
Stewart begins by tracking Swango's peculiar progress through the
University of Southern Illinois
in the late 1970s, where the former Marine raised eyebrows with his butchery of lab cadavers and a downright frightening affinity for violent accidents and the Holocaust, mementos of which he kept in a scrapbook in his unkempt apartment.
After Swango wore out his welcome at USI, he moved on, degree in hand, to
Ohio State University's
famous medical center. Before long, corpses started turning up with the frequency of pumpkins in late October. Stewart collars nurses, interns and other hospital staffers who retell horror stories of Swango, who was, at that point, a fully licensed physician, administering strange shots to moderately ill patients who subsequently never woke up. According to Stewart's narrative, Swango also found time to poison paramedics, girlfriends and others who crossed his path. His bedside manner was charming as well. Swango once told a worried daughter that was permissible to visit her mother, hospitalized with pneumonia. "It's OK to see her now," he reportedly said, with the hint of a smile. "She's dead."
While a mountain of evidence seems to have piled up against Swango, his fellow doctors are reluctant to turn in a fellow member of the fraternity. Stewart does a compelling job compiling a laundry list of doctors who shrug off the untimely deaths of patients under Swango's care. "It's a hospital," one physician says. "These things happen."
The authorities finally caught up to Swango, another gripping tale that's best left to the author to tell. But Swango escaped them, Houdini-like, traveling to a Zimbabwe missionary hospital where local farmers promptly began turning up dead. Another manhunt ensued, but Swango reappeared in hospitals under new identities, with syringe in hand.
Stewart does a masterful job of depicting the physicians' clannish fraternity, showing how doctors are loath to believe nurses, paramedics and other hospital staffers when they suspect another doctor of incompetency or, in Swango's case, murder.
It's a strange world that Swango thrived in, aided and abetted by those who took the Hippocratic oath. Swango's alleged murderous tendencies are frightening enough, but the toxic complacency of his colleagues is downright terrifying for those readers with hospital visits hovering somewhere in our future.
Brian O'Connell is a Framingham, Mass.-based freelance writer who has contributed to the Boston Herald, Worth, Communications Week and many other publications. He was senior editor at DEC Professional magazine and contributing writer at LAN Computing magazine from 1989 to 1994. Previously he had worked at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange in the 1980s and as a bond trader on the fixed-income trading desk of Delaware Funds.
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