HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsDoctors have fine line to walk

Doctors have fine line to walk

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The world can come crushing down at any moment.
This week, a Harare doctor, Alfred Mamsa, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for raping a female patient. His 27-year career came to an abrupt, shuddering end.

According to the magistrate, Mamsa abused his medical knowledge to pounce on an unsuspecting victim. Said the magistrate: “Accused’s (Mamsa’) moral blameworthiness is very high taking into account that he used a powerful drug to subdue his patient. His actions were out of the ordinary.”

To me, the case is all the more painful and sad because it has a personal dimension: I knew Mamsa as a fellow boarder at Thekwane (now Tegwani) High School, a Methodist Church in Zimbabwe co-educational mission institution in Plumtree which was then only one of five schools in the entire country offering “A” Level to us blacks as colonial Rhodesia administered its own milder but still bitter medicine of apartheid. I also met him a few times after he qualified as a doctor and was now in private practice in Harare.

So I didn’t in the least bit enjoy reading about the rape case from the first time it appeared in a Saturday newspaper earlier this year until the ruling this week as the magistrate found Mamsa guilty as charged, not to mention the anguish his family must be experiencing right now and the regrets – too late – he must be feeling himself.

Mamsa’s lawyer has indicated that he will appeal against both conviction and sentence. All I can say is that justice with equity must prevail because the complainant, the victim, is not a footnote, but a real person like you and me. Which brings me to the point at issue here: Professional arrogance.

On that Saturday, I happened to be sitting next to two doctors in a city centre restaurant, who out of what I can only describe as a misplaced sense of professional loyalty, quickly labelled the complainant as purely after framing Mamsa. I asked them as to the motive behind that, if any.
They could not give me a satisfactory answer except to mumble something to the effect that doctors were above this. I was totally shocked that they simply saw themselves as doctors and not first as individuals who happened to be doctors.

It’s like they were saying I had absolutely no business talking about doctors or medical issues except themselves and other fellow doctors.
Shocked, I then pointed out to them – without any prejudice to Mamsa but for the sake of rational argument —an extreme example that American Dr Michael Swango was actually a serial killer who poisoned to death as much as 60 patients, among them Zimbabweans admitted at a Mberengwa mission hospital in the 1990s. Swango is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in his native United States.

I told them these “unscripted” things do happen and they are not confined to medicine as such. We have had paedophile priests for decades and sex predator teachers who prey on their pupils.

To me, it sounded as if these doctors were convinced that they were incapable of making mistakes whether professionally or personally.

They wanted to make it appear as if their profession was immune from such things. There was some unilinear thinking about it; that deviating from this showed ignorance. I pointed out that when one of our own was implicated, we had to remain open-minded about the case and get a clearer picture as the evidence was adduced in court from both the prosecution and defence.

I then raised the case of Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s doctor, who was found to have acted in a criminally negligent manner after giving Jackson a dose of the powerful anaesthetic Propofol as a sleep aid. The defence, however, maintained that Jackson took a deadly dose of the drug after Murray left his bedroom, hours before the popular singer’s death in June 2009. Even if we were to accept that, but this is a potent drug which should have been safely secured to avoid falling into the wrong hands of the addicted Jackson, who was clearly a troubled soul and recklessly seeking solace in drugs and fetishes such as plastic surgery which disfigured his face. So in every way — that is, professionally and personally — the doctor was to blame. What Murray did was not only illegal and immoral, but also exploitative of a rich but out-of-control patient. He is currently serving a four-year jail term for involuntary manslaughter.
But my doctor friends on that Saturday afternoon would hear none of it, so I decided to change the subject and the table.

There is some superior attitude among some – not all — in professions such as law and medicine. I remember followers of a lawyer-cum-politician somewhat saying immodestly than he knew much more law than the police put together, but no one can juggle all issues at once. This where the layperson or ordinary person – with his average, undistinguished, but intuitive skills — comes in.

How many lawyers insist on a certain line of defence against the client’s gut feelings resulting in a wrongful conviction and heavier sentence? How many patients have come across doctors with a superior and overbearing attitude imposing a wrong diagnosis on them to the great harm to their health and even loss of life?

Arrogance is fuelled by power and success. Dr Josef Mengele, who did horrific experiments on human beings in Nazi concentration camps, “had a look that said ‘I am the power’,” said one survivor.

To me, it’s exactly such professional arrogance which can possibly lead to such sad and tragic predicaments that my ex-schoolmate Mamsa finds himself in. This has left many casualties from all sides. Some people perceive themselves as higher beings as soon as they attain a professional qualification.

This can result in professional arrogance which, in turn, can impinge negatively on one’s perception, viewing others as unequal or inferior beings. I think medical schools must right from the beginning warn trainee doctors to avoid professional arrogance because, after all, they are human beings. There is need for professional detachment instead of being detached from reality.

Doctors have a fine line to walk to avoid straying into that dangerous zone.

ctutani@newsday.co.zw

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