I’m fascinated by this article in the Boston Globe’s magazine about Dr. David Arndt, the physician who made headlines a couple of years ago when he walked out of the operating room in the middle of a complex spinal surgery to go to the bank and cash his paycheck. (Thanks, Arts and Letters Daily, for the link.)

What’s fascinating to me about the article, titled “What Went Wrong?” is the spin that author Neil Swidey (like everyone else, apparently, who’s come into contact with the 43-year-old Arndt) puts on the story: the downfall of a “brilliant” and “compassionate” Harvard-educated surgeon whose life somehow got out of control, resulting not just in the check incident but in arrests for drug-possession and sexually molesting a 15-year-old boy. Swidey’s gushing take on Arndt is a testimony not just to Big Media reporters’ sentimentality but to their ability to be easily intimidated by their subjects. Arndt snowed Swidey when he pointed out that Swidey had never read Janet Malcolm’s windy 1980s New Yorker piece, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” about her own love-hate relationship with convicted physician/wife-and-children-slayer Jeffrey MacDonald.

A careful examination of the facts in Swidey’s article reveals something other than the “Greek tragedy” (Swidey’s words) that he purports to relate. If the allegations in pending medical malpractice lawsuits against Arndt are to be believed, he was a lousy doctor who not only bungled at least two operations in a short-lived medical career that lasted exactly four years after he completed his surgical residency, but he even failed to show up on one occasion for a scheduled surgery. Arndt attended a hippie-dippy “alternative” college in San Francisco during the 1970s that handed out academic credit for “life experience,” and it is possible that he got into Harvard Medical school largely because his father, Dr. Kenneth Arndt, was a distinguished faculty member there. Add to that an allegedly meth-addled brain during at least part of Arndt’s life and a criminal record that began in 1998, when Arndt pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge that he filed a false affidavit to help his Venezuelan lover obtain a U.S. passport under a false name.

That’s the “brilliant” part. As for “compassion”–well, Arndt used to wear tie-dyed T-shirts, and he worked with the homeless for a while during his pre-medical school days. Other than that, he bullied scrub nurses, professors, and a classmate’s girlfriend, and he liked to stay involved in his patients’ care long after they had gotten out of his operating room, a quality that Swidey characterizes as “a surplus of compassion” but a fellow surgeon of Arndt’s characterized as being a control freak: “He wanted to be in charge.”

In short, Arndt was a career weirdo who got a break from the people with whom he came into contact because our society confuses political correctness–making the right noises about compassion and the homeless–with genuine kindness and generosity. Arndt even had the staff at Mt. Auburn Hospital near Boston (where he had a reputation for showing up late) bamboozled into thinking he was such a wonderful guy that they acted as a chain of runners to deliver him his paycheck in the operating room on that July day in 2002 when he took a 35-minute break in the middle of spinal-fusion surgery to go to the bank. (Would you like to stay at a hospital whose staff passes personal items to your surgeon in the middle of your back operation?) Furthermore, let’s face it, Arndt probably got a free pass because he is gay. The homophobic-phobic undoubtedly bent over backwards to excuse conduct that would have been deemed unacceptable in a heterosexual. 

Swidey’s article, chock-full of shocking incidents from Arndt’s personal and professional life, makes for entertaining reading. Arndt essentially stiffed the lover who had supported him for 11 years, covering all his medical-school expenses except tuition; Arndt has never honored a court-upheld agreement requiring him to reimbuse that generosity from his professional earnings. In 1998, the year Arndt started his surgical practice, which was also the  year of the fraudulent passport incident, Arndt discovered the same boyfriend whom he’d helped out on the passport in the bedroom of a next-door neighbor, whereupon he ripped out the neighbor’s window screen to get into the house, punched out the neighbor, and threw a chair at him. (The neighbor declined to press criminal charges after Arndt agreed to attend anger-management classes and pay the neighbor $30,000 in damages, of which only $18,700 ever got paid.)

Then there was the eight-hour back operation that Arndt was supposed to perform in 2001; the procedure stretched out to 18 hours, and Arndt was unable to finish it, according to allegations in a pending malpractice suit. The patient had complications from the surgery and was scheduled for a follow-up operation. When Arndt failed to show up at the hospital, the prepped patient waited around for four-and-a-half hours and then checked out and drove home. Four days later, he got a call from Arndt explaining that Arndt had overslept.

Arndt lost his hospital privileges at Mt. Auburn the day after the check-cashing caper, and his license to practice medicine, already under investigation over the fraudulent-passport adventure of 1998, was suspended. Later in 2002, he was charged with four counts, including rape of a child, following an incident in which he allegedly picked up two teen-age boys in his car and later had sex with one of them, age 15. Last June Arndt was found at Boston’s Logan Airport carrying his passport and $12,000 in cash (his lawyer said that Arndt needed that passport because he had mislaid his driver’s license, and that he had been contemplating a trip to New York to repay a loan to a friend). Two months later he was arrested again, for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute after police intercepted his alleged pickup of a penis-shaped pinata stuffed with two pounds of the crystalline substance. His bail revoked after this incident, Arndt is currently facing two separate trials on both the drug and the sex charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

This is a Greek tragedy? Swidey, however, was impressed, so impressed by Arndt’s riveting “intelligence” (Swidey’s word) that he rushed out to locate a copy of Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker article, published in book form in 1990. Swidey is still savoring Malcolm’s famous long-winded lead: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” (as an editor myself, I would have blue-penciled the otiose “to notice what is going on”). I would argue that what was “morally indefensible” in journalist Swidey’s case wasn’t writing about Arndt; it was trying to defend the indefensible.