Friday, November 06, 2009

One Of Us: Physicians Who Kill


"I have already said that if you kill a doctor, all the doctors are instantly on your neck. But what if the man who does the killing is a physician himself? That complicates the situation most damnably..."

---Foursquare: The Story of a Fourfold Life by John Oliver

I've been reading, along with everybody else, the story of the Army major and psychiatrist Dr. Nidal Hasan who killed thirteen people in a spree shooting at Fort Hood yesterday. Let me say first that I've never met Dr. Hasan and know nothing about him; I have no particular information or insights about this offense beyond what I've read in the media.

The CNN article today interviewed two of Dr. Hasan's patients, who both said nothing but glowing things about him and his care. I've blogged about spree killers before ("Shooter Psychology") but this case is different. It got my thinking about the general issue of physicians who kill.

Physician killers are certainly a relative rarity, but they are not unknown. Dr. Jack Kevorkian is probably the most famous here in the United States, but in the United Kingdom there was the case of Dr. Harold Shipman. Dr. Shipman forged the will of, and then killed, several elderly female patients. Then there was Michael Swango, a serial poisoner who killed his patients specifically so that he could take credit for his heroic "resuscitation" efforts. As far back as 1920 Dr. John Oliver wrote about an anonymous psychiatrist colleague who killed another physician and was found legally insane. The quote at the start of this post is from Dr. Oliver's autobiography were he discussed the case. For anyone really fascinated by the topic, I refer you to the book Demon Doctors: Physician Serial Killers. I haven't read it myself so I can't vouch for it; feel free to write in reviews.

But I digress. Getting back to what happened at Fort Hood, the news reports don't indicate anything to suggest that Dr. Hasan was psychotic, motivated by greed or financial gain or out of a need to be a hero. He wasn't an infantryman who had been exposed to combat and who might have been terrified of going back to a traumatic environment. He was educated and presumably in a better financial and social situation than most of the patients he treated, unlike many of my murderer patients who have burned multiple social bridges prior to the killing.

Regardless, a killing by a physician---particularly by a psychiatrist---creates a bizarre aftermath. The military is sending mental health professionals to counsel the victims and witnesses; I'd be willing to bet those military mental health professionals will be required to check their weapons at the door.