Patient Safety | 08.26.20
NAMSS Reviews ‘Very Scary People: Dr. Death’
Recently, the “Very Scary People” television series covered someone who may be familiar to MSPs — Dr. Michael Swango. Swango was a medical serial killer who knowingly murdered patients across two continents. In this two-part, documentary-style series, Swango’s past colleagues, reporters, and law enforcement officials reflect on nearly two decades of Swango’s fraudulent behaviors from his days in medical school to when he was served four life sentences with no chance for parole.
Host Donnie Wahlberg isn’t the only familiar face in this documentary. Special Agent Bruce Sackman, who retired from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, Criminal Investigation division, Northeast Field Office in 2005, was interviewed for his involvement in Swango’s case. NAMSS members may recognize Sackman, as he will take the virtual stage for the business keynote presentation at the NAMSS 44th Educational Virtual Conference and Exhibition.
Read on for NAMSS’ review of this chilling documentary.
Who Is Dr. Michael Swango?
Swango was a charming doctor whose method to kill was poison. He saw his life as a “normal story about a normal man, with the occasional bad things sprinkled in.” While his first documented murder was college student Cindy McGee, who was in the hospital recovering from a bicycle accident, he went on to use his Quincy, Illinois, paramedic colleagues as “guinea pigs” to test their reactions to poison. After serving two years in prison for poisoning his co-workers, Swango began practicing medicine again in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, hospitals. Once it was discovered that he served jail time, he was suspended from the Sioux Falls hospitals, despite his attempt to convince colleagues that his felony was a misunderstanding.
From there, Swango left South Dakota and ended up at a Northport, New York, Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. When patient Thomas Sammarco was admitted to the VA hospital, he told his family a doctor would walk by his room, pointing at him and saying, “You’re next.” Sammarco is one of the three patients at the VA hospital who died unexpectedly — and Swango was the last person in the room.
Swango on the Move
When the VA hospital psychiatrist suspected something was off, Sackman and his colleagues were called in. Because VA hospitals are government property, the FBI became involved. Sackman found Swango to be “the most handsome and charming person you’d ever want to meet.” “If I didn’t know better,” Sackman says in the documentary, “I’d want to introduce him to my daughter.” But a few days after the FBI questioned Swango and decided he should be removed from the hospital, the doctor was gone.
Swango ended up working for a water treatment facility in Atlanta, an alarming position for someone obsessed with poison, but soon he disappeared again. At this point, he was considered a fugitive. He fled the States and arrived in Zimbabwe at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a time when many doctors came to Africa to assist in medical care. During his time there, medical staff colleagues realized he was deficient in the most basic medical procedures but always had his syringes fully loaded. When he was finally suspended for harming and killing patients in Africa, he hired an attorney who found many holes in his case but could not locate his qualifications. At this point, there was enough evidence to charge him on five accounts of murder. He climbed out a window and fled the country before Zimbabwe officials could arrest him.
Capturing Dr. Death
If Swango had not returned to the United States to obtain a visa to travel to Saudi Arabia, he may have been lost to the FBI. Swango had not been licensed to practice medicine — he never completed his residency — and he created falsified documents that appeared to absolve him of his past charges, including a forged letter from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Therefore, he committed the felony of lying on a federal job application to work for the VA hospital. He was then indicted for perjury as an international charge.
After pleading guilty to his perjury charge in New York, he received 3.5 years in prison, and authorities had to prove at least one homicide to keep him jailed. Swango was indicted for murder in July 2000, a day before his release for his perjury sentence, for three murders at the VA hospital, five murders in Africa, and the murder of Cindy McGee early in his career. Due to an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Zimbabwe that called for death by hanging, Swango, who was fascinated by death but unwilling to die himself, chose to plead guilty for his U.S. charges. He is serving four life sentences, with no chance of parole, at the most secure federal prison in the country. It’s believed that he caused 60 deaths worldwide.
Swango’s story is horrifying. Besides covering his professional fatalities, the documentary dives into his upbringing, telling of his loving mother who spoiled him and a strict, military father who ran his home like an army troop. From as early as second grade, Swango created scrapbooks of news clippings and stories of violence, homicides, and disasters. His fascination with death was rooted deep in his personal history. Even with this history, it is difficult to fathom that just within the past few decades, he was practicing medicine, crossing oceans to harm patients in other countries, and getting away with it.
Drawing on stories from colleagues, reporters, government officials, friends and family of Swango’s victims, and even quotes from Swango himself, this documentary provides an eerie, uncensored account of what can happen when medical professionals are not properly trained, educated, and credentialed. Swango’s case is just one example of why MSPs are so vital to the healthcare system.
As the gatekeepers of patient safety, MSPs have the power and responsibility to ensure medical professionals are practicing for the good of the patient, not for their own desires. This documentary is an extreme yet powerful reminder of the important role MSPs play in the medical field.
More on Dr. Death
Besides catching a rerun of Swango’s “Very Scary People” episodes on demand or on Hulu, learn more about the phenomenon of medical serial killers at the NAMSS 44th Educational Virtual Conference and Exhibition when Special Agent Bruce Sackman takes the virtual stage for the business keynote presentation. Register now to join NAMSS online, Oct. 5–8, to learn about the MSP’s role in the ever-evolving world of healthcare.
Morgan Manghera is the associate editor for NAMSS Synergy and Gateway publications. Interested in contributing to NAMSS publications? Contact Morgan at email@example.com.