«Bad surgeon: the Paolo Macchiarini case». That’s what it’s called Ben Steele’s docuseries released by Netflix on the case of the former trachea transplant genius. The doctor from Viareggio, whose controversial story our newspaper had covered for years in general silence (with the first doubts about his untested transplant technique already arising in March 2009), right from the title he is defined as a “bad surgeon”, in a three-part story that reconstructs his lies, deceptions and failures. After the criminal conviction in Sweden, which became final last October, for aggravated violence against three patients who he had operated on using them as guinea pigs, now even a platform with global visibility like Netflix puts a stone on the credibility of a doctor who 15 years ago had been hired by Careggi, welcomed with triumphalist tones by Tuscan politics and the local and national media.
The docuseries does not focus on the five Florentine transplants, almost as if they had never been made and on which until now it had been impossible to clarify, However, «Bad surgeon» interviews the Brazilian Ana Paula Bernardes, another woman deceived and betrayed by the surgeon: his son Danilo, who had been operated on at Cisanello in Pisa in December 2010, was then taken to Careggi in the operating room directed by Macchiarini (in his case it was not a transplant). The doctor reassured the woman: “No patient has ever died in my hands,” she told her. But Danilo, due to the after-effects of the operation, died shortly afterwards.
And Macchiarini, a doctor of international fame at the time, to convince him that he was not responsible for the death, for a long time he continued to call her, console her and finally court her. Until she ended up falling in love with him. The two, says Ana Paula, met while Macchiarini was on trial for the manslaughter of Danilo (for which he was later acquitted), until they gave birth to a daughter.
Their love story ended in January 2016, when the woman discovered her partner’s double life: the journalist Benita Alexander had in fact told Vanity Fair and Corriere Fiorentino that she had been deceived by Macchiarini, with whom she was supposed to get married: he had invented that the Pope himself would celebrate the wedding, but she had discovered that he was already married and that he had two children. And that even the engagement ring was fake.
A journalist and the mother of a dead patient, lusted — according to the docuseries — to hide the traces of his surgical failures. «After Danilo’s death he called me every day – reveals Ana Paula -, he wrote to me continuously. He was so important, I felt shivers in my stomach. I was happy”. Ana Paula’s story is very similar to Benita’s. Luxury trips – both were taken to Venice, for example -, promises that later turned out to be incredible lies. And above all the same modus operandi, says Ana Paula: to approach to try to influence in their beliefs those who could benefit from the great surgeon’s narrative, even the relatives of his patients who, due to the type of “extreme” operations and the after-effects, could only rely on him completely. «Paolo takes advantage of fragile people – explains the woman – what kind of doctor is he who goes to look for the mother of a dead patient. I hate him and I have never hated anyone before.”
«Bad surgeon» thus gets to the heart of things when it addresses the topic of transplants and exposes itself by saying that Macchiarini «knew» that they didn’t work. In the long list of victims, what stands out is the fact that the surgeon defended himself from adverse events by claiming that the problem arose from the fact that they were patients suffering from other pathologies. As the case of Hannah Warren, 2 years old, stands out died a few months after tracheal transplant or that of the Turkish Yesim Cetir, who underwent surgery in Sweden, whose health problems were very mild: but after the transplant he remained in intensive care for 4 and a half years before dying and after having undergone 191 repair surgeries and an airway cleaning every 4 hours. An ordeal.
But Macchiarini goes further and goes to Russia in search of healthy patients. Where, according to the docuseries, “a lottery” is unleashed of patients who are candidates for surgery, who beg him through videos to solve their non-serious health problems. «Bad surgeon» tells the story of Julia Tuulik, a former dancer who, due to a car accident, lived with a tracheotomy, a condition that did not put his survival at risk. In the series there is a video, in which Macchiarini, shortly before the transplant, discovers that the artificial tracheas available are defective: “Who cares”, he comments. Julia will die like “a sacrificial lamb,” according to the docuseries.
Obviously, a lot of space was dedicated to the doctors at the Karoliska Institutet in Solna, Sweden, who worked alongside him, but who then became his first accusers. One of them, Kalle Grinnemo, who even thought of committing suicide when he found himself isolated for having questioned Macchiarini, recounts the exact moment in which he understood that the whole affair was a lie: that is, when he and his colleagues realized that they did not exist tests on animals and that the testing was done directly on humans. We in Italy, in Florence, had discovered it well before. But here he preferred to keep everything quiet.