Charm, prestige and silence – that’s how the Macchiarini scandal was created

The “star surgeon” Macchiarini was praised for his pioneering methods and would take Swedish institutions to new heights. It ended in a scandal with ingredients such as experimental operations, research fraud and an astonishing love story. How could that be?

There are only eight weeks left. Soon she will be a bride in what they call the “wedding of the century”. The guest list includes the presidential couple Obama and Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Kofi Annan. Tenor Andrea Bocelli will sing. The officiant is the pope himself.

Does that sound too good to be true? That was it too.

In the spring of 2015, Benita Alexander realizes that the marriage between her and her fiancé, the famous surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, will not end. He has brought her, an experienced and award-winning producer on the American television company NBC, behind the light. But she quickly realizes that she is not alone.

– When I understood how crazy and far-reaching lies he had told me, my first thought was that if he had lied to me in that way, he must also have lied within the framework of his medical activities. That insight was horrific, says Benita Alexander to TT on a link from New York.

No attempts

Benita Alexander had two choices. Either that shame and humiliation withdraw, or tell everything. She chose the latter. In early 2016, Vanity Fair magazine published a report on the astonishing story of Benita Alexander and Paolo Macchiarini.

Journalist Benita Alexander was about to marry Paolo Macchiarini in 2015. The picture is cropped. Photo: Courtesy Benita Alexander @ loveconned / TT

At the same time, SVT journalist Bosse Lindquist completed the documentary series, “The Experiments”, which would soon shake Sweden. It was about how Macchiarini was recruited to Karolinska Institutet (KI) and Karolinska Hospital (KS) where he performed research cheating and life-threatening and painful transplants of synthetic tracheas on three patients. The interventions lacked scientific evidence, no animal experiments or any ethical review had been done before them.

How was this possible? How could Paolo Macchiarini bring with him both Benita Alexander and people in the top echelons of KI and KS – those who were all well-educated people, accustomed to critical thinking?

Funny and intelligent

Part of the explanation is his personality, say Bosse Lindquist and Benita Alexander, who both testify to a great deal of charm in the surgeon. He is funny, intelligent and attracts everyone’s eyes when he enters a room.

– He is charismatic, exciting and good-looking. I believe that both men and women can be attracted to him in many different ways. Then he has something to attract, he is a technically knowledgeable surgeon and he claimed to have come up with medical solutions that could revolutionize medicine and science, says Bosse Lindquist.

Benita Alexander recalls that before all the accusations exploded, he was described as the “star surgeon” and there was talk of potential Nobel Prizes for his discoveries. She herself met Paolo Macchiarini when, on behalf of NBC, she was working on a documentary about his operation on a two-year-old girl who was born without a trachea, and was then struck by how selfless he seemed.

– He really wanted to achieve new medical successes and push the boundaries of what is possible. He did this because he cared about others and because he was willing to be the rebel required for this. And it appeared at first to be very admirable, says Benita Alexander.

A culture of silence

But of course it was not just about Macchiarini, but also about shortcomings in the environment. In 2016, Professor Emeritus Kjell Asplund examined what had happened at KS and then pointed out that group thinking, a culture of silence, many informal leaders and the lack of objections and sufficiently critical questions before the transplants contributed to the course of events.

SVT journalist Bosse Lindquist’s documentary series “The Experiments” shook Sweden when it came out in 2016. Photo: Anders Wiklund / TT

It also mattered that many around wanted to be a part of the success and themselves tried to take advantage of Paolo Macchiarini.

– Money and prestige were at stake. He was the golden calf, the “super surgeon”, who would bring prestige and attention from all over the world. Of course, people wanted to keep up with this journey of success – he was the golden ticket, says Benita Alexander.

Be sanctioned

Paolo Macchiarini usually defends himself by saying that he was not alone in what happened – and he is right, according to Bosse Lindquist:

– He was sanctioned by the management of KI and KS. And it is not possible to do experimental surgery at KS without a number of managers having given approvals. Macchiarini is absolutely right that he is not solely responsible for the suffering caused.

If one big question is how it was possible, the other is usually: why did he do it? Benita Alexander says that that question tormented her, but that she gave up. She will never get an answer.

Bosse Lindquist is of the opinion that Paolo Macchiarini really believes that he can save lives.

– I am convinced that he himself is sure that he is saving humanity and that he will save his patients in the long run. That in time he will actually save a lot of lives.

TT has repeatedly tried to reach Macchiarini for a comment but without success. On Wednesday, the trial against him begins in Solna District Court, where he is charged with aggravated assault of three patients who had plastic throats transplanted at KS. He has always denied any wrongdoing.

Facts: The indictment against Macchiarini

In the autumn of 2020, surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was charged with aggravated assault of three of his patients who were transplanted with synthetic trachea in 2011–2012.

In his lawsuit, the prosecutor writes that the interventions took place “completely contrary to science and proven experience” and that it violated the law as “it did not form part of any form of medical care or licensed research study”. According to the prosecutor, the acts must be assessed as serious, among other things as they caused “severe bodily injuries and very severe suffering”.

In the alternative, the prosecutor demands that the surgeon be convicted of causing bodily harm, a felony.

Source: The Public Prosecutor’s Office

Background: Benita Alexander and Paolo Macchiarini

Benita Alexander and Paolo Macchiarini meet in 2013 when she was commissioned to produce a documentary on the American television company NBC about the surgeon’s transplant of a synthetic trachea on a two-year-old girl. They first become good friends and later start a relationship.

At the end of the year, Macchiarini proposes to Alexander and she answers yes. The plans are for the wedding to take place in Rome, in July 2015. At the end of 2014, Macchiarini says that the pope has promised to marry the couple. The surgeon’s invitation list includes several presidential couples – Obama, Clinton, Putin and Sarkozy – as well as Kofi Annan, Russell Crowe and Elton John.

In the spring of 2015, Benita Alexander perceives her fiancé as increasingly stressed, as there have been accusations from colleagues about research fraud. With eight weeks left until the wedding, she receives an email from a colleague, which shows that the pope will be traveling in South America at the time of the wedding.

Alexander becomes suspicious and secretly begins to check on his fiancé, among other things with the help of private detectives. After a while, she confronts Macchiarini and the relationship ends in the summer of 2015.

The following year, the entire story is revealed in Vanity Fair. Benita Alexander has also made her own documentary about the relationship and participated in many interviews about the case and today works to help women who have been exposed to love fraud.

Paolo Macchiarini has never commented on the couple’s relationship.

Source: Vanity Fair, Benita Alexander, “The Macchiarini affair. Truths and lies at Karolinska” by Bosse Lindquist.

Source: Nyteknik – Senaste nytt by

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