Most protagonists on medical dramas are modern-day heroes. And then there are the surgeons on Dr. Death. The first season of both the Peacock series and the Wondery podcast of the same name told the story of Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon now serving a life sentence for botched surgeries that left more than 30 patients maimed or dead. And the TV show’s second season, announced earlier this month, will cover the podcast’s third, with Edgar Ramirez playing Paolo Macchiarini, and This Is Us star Mandy Moore playing Benita Alexander, an investigative journalist who falls into a whirlwind romance with the doctor.
According to The New York Times, Macchiarini is an Italian surgeon who was found criminally liable this June for causing felony bodily injury to a Turkish woman named Yesim Cetir, a patient who had received one of his 3D-printed windpipes and later died. Macchiarini was also charged with but acquitted of assault charges related to the deaths of two more of his artificial windpipe patients, an Eritrean man named Andemariam Beyene and an American man named Christopher Lyles, according to BBC News. Macchiarini, who denied the charges against him, wasn’t directly accused of killing any of the three patients.
More than a decade ago, Macchiarini became a superstar in the field of medicine when he implanted the world’s first “bioartificial” windpipe, a plastic structure that used the patient’s stem cells to reduce the risk of organ rejection. At the time, Macchiarini was working at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine every year.
But colleagues suspected that Macchiarini was manipulating his results. According to the Times, Macchiarini — seen below in a 2017 interview on Sweden’s TV4 Nyheterna — performed 20 tracheal regeneration procedures across Europe and in the United States but hid the fact that the transplants were failing.
In other countries, more of Macchiarini’s patients died after receiving one of his artificial windpipes. One was a 2-year-old girl named Hannah Warren, on whom he’d operated in Peoria, IL, in 2013, according to Vanity Fair. Another was a Russian mother named Julia Tuulik, per BBC News.
According to the Karolinska Institute’s timeline of the Macchiarini case, the institute recruited Macchiarini as a visiting professor of regenerative medicine/stem cell biology in 2010, and the associated Karolinska University Hospital gave him a part-time contract as a consultant and surgeon around the same time.
Starting in 2011, Macchiarini performed three transplantations of synthetic tracheas at Karolinska University Hospital, but one of those patients died in 2012, the timeline reports. In 2013, the hospital halted future operations with synthetic trachea and opted to not extend Macchiarini’s contract. And in 2014, four Karolinska University Hospital doctors filed two separate reports claiming that Macchiarini’s scientific papers described exaggerated the positive results of the operations and “incorrectly describe[d] the postoperative status of the patients and the functionality of the implant,” the timeline says. Even so, it wasn’t until 2016 that the Karolinska Institute declined to renew his contract.
In 2015, the Karolinska Institute hired an independent investigator named Dr. Bengt Gerdin to look into the Macchiarini situation, per the Times. Gerdin determined that Macchiarini committed scientific misconduct, but leadership at the Karolinska Institute ignored the findings and cleared Macchiarini. And investigations by both institute and the hospital found coverups regarding Macchiarini’s work.
After Macchiarini fitted Cetir with one of his artificial windpipes in 2012, her condition worsened. She spent more than three years in intensive care and endured 200 surgical procedures, theTimes reports. According to the judgment in Macchiarini’s case, hospital staff said that Cetir had around 40 “near-death experiences” and was conscious but unable to breathe for many of them.
“The plastic trachea that Yesim Cetir received disfigured her and made her last three years in life basically like torture,” Bosse Lindquist, the documentarian behind the Swedish TV series The Experiment, told the Times.
Prosecutors asked for a five-year prison sentence for Macchiarini’s liability in Cetir’s bodily injury, but a Swedish court instead gave him a suspended sentence this June, deciding that he hadn’t intended to cause the patients harm, according to BBC News. Chief judge Bjoern Skaensberg said the court agreed that Macchiarini’s operations were not consistent with “science and proven experience,” but the court determined that “two of the interventions were justifiable.”
As of the time of that judgment, Macchiarini had not been prosecuted in other countries where he implanted his artificial windpipes, and it was unclear whether he was still practicing medicine, the Times adds.
“The Karolinska Institute was seduced by Macchiarini,” Gerdin told the newspaper. “He was one of the best con men I have ever come across. He convinced the Karolinska Institute that this could make them famous, and they just let him do it. Not only that, they later covered it up.”
Also seduced by Macchiarini was former NBC News producer Benita Alexander, who met the surgeon in 2013 when she was working on A Leap of Faith, an NBC special about Macchiarini hosted by Meredith Vieira. Alexander eventually fell in love with the surgeon, and in 2014, he proposed to her, and they started planning a lavish wedding for the following year. Macchiarini told people that Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Vladimir Putin would attend the wedding, Andrea Bocelli would perform, and Pope Francis (a patient of his, or so he said) would officiate the ceremony, per Vanity Fair.
But after Alexander learned that Pope Francis was scheduled to visit South America at the time of their wedding, she confronted Macchiarini about his claims. “I didn’t want Paolo to not be the man I believed him to be,” she told Vanity Fair. “I didn’t want the fairy tale to end.”
Alexander also hired a private investigator, a former Pennsylvania State Police detective named Frank Murphy. And Murphy found that Macchiarini’s claims about the wedding were almost all untrue — and that the surgeon was married and had been for nearly 30 years. “I’ve never in my experience witnessed a fraud like this, with this level of international flair,” Murphy told Vanity Fair. “The fact that he could keep all the details straight and compartmentalize these different lives and lies is really amazing.”
Dr. Death, Season 2, TBA, Peacock