LOOKING FOR DR DEATH
ONCE you leave behind the patchwork fields of cane and blood red soil the road into southern Bundaberg gives way to auto wreckers and car yards and a huge concrete water tower on the edge of the town cemetery.
In another time the cemetery would have marked the outer reach of Bundaberg. But now, with progress, it sits there on busy Takalvan Street like an island of the dead, surrounded by shopping malls and electrical warehouses and strips of plastic bunting.
Through the entrance to the Bundaberg General Cemetery is a pretty archway of old trees, and on either side winged stone angels and marble headstones. Past the Italian crypts and the graves of returned servicemen, though, beyond a line of gums, are the new graves.
These low, gleaming headstones in the western corner form a perfectly neat grid, row after symmetrical row, the most recently deceased exposed and at the front line. These graves face the wind and an empty paddock.
About two-thirds of the way along that line is the grey marble headstone of Barry John Johnson – born 8th September 1946, died 1st October 2003, aged 57 years. The inscription reads: Forever in Our Hearts. Etched into the marble is a green-stemmed red rose.
Barry Johnson shouldn’t be here. He rests at peace beside Ruby Emery, 82, and Stanley Frawley, 76. He’s too young. There was a mistake. It wasn’t Barry Johnson’s time to take his place in the shadow of the water tower.
He was taken to Bundaberg Base Hospital in September of 2003 with pancreatic cancer. And it was there that he came into contact with Dr Jayant Patel. The Indian-born surgeon put off Barry Johnson’s operation for a fortnight, and later performed a bypass rather than removing the cancer.
After four days in the Intensive Care Unit the doctor pronounced that there was nothing that could be done for Barry Johnson. Within 90 minutes of that verdict, the patient was dead.
Barry Johnson shouldn’t be there, between Ruby and Stanley. He couldn’t have known, though, that fate would bring him into the care of a man they now call Dr Death.
Across town, on the Coral Coast, is the seaside village of Bargara. Fifteen kilometres from Bundaberg city, you pass through tall setts of sugar cane and vegetable fields before you arrive at the esplanade and the sea.
Bargara, like most coastal Queensland villages, is in a state of transformation. Its main street is full of trendy cafes and restaurants. Construction cranes tower over the waterfront pine trees. There are resorts called Raffles and Manta. Literally sandwiched between these new resorts are old, flaking wooden Queenslanders.
This, too, is the home of Bundaberg’s “elites”, as the locals call them - the doctors and lawyers and professionals of the provincial city.
It was here that Dr Patel had his subsidised residence, in a two-bedroom complex called Bargara Blue. The surgeon, purportedly on a $200,000 annual salary with a car, had an apartment in the rear five-storey tower of the two tower resort.
He kept his apartment spotless, and in turn was a favoured tenant amongst the cleaners. He was known around the building as “Jay”, an Americanised affectation of his real name. Everyone knew Bundaberg’s top surgeon had come from the United States. He talked repeatedly about New York.
Jay Patel was often seen enjoying a drink and a meal down at the nearby Bargara Beach Hotel. He popped in now and then to the 5 Star Handimart for bread and milk. Every day he bought the national newspapers and his treasured packs of Holiday 4 milligram 50s.
In his time off work, which was limited, he liked nothing more than to hire classic videos, like Casablanca. And sometimes he could be seen down on the basalt rocks in front of Bargara Blue, or at nearby Kellys Beach, executing delicate crayon seascapes in a sketch pad.
It is likely he occasionally bumped into his neighbours, such as Bundaberg Base Hospital district manager Peter Leck, or the local Member for Burnett, Rob Messenger, who has his office near the newsagent where Dr Patel purchased his cigarettes and hired his videos.
But the doctor spent little time at home. He was a workaholic, turning up at the hospital even on weekends when he wasn’t formally required. It wasn’t unusual for him to work through to the early hours of the morning, and resume another shift in the afternoon.
Since arriving in Bundaberg in 2003, his rigid routine precluded him from socialising with the city’s other highly-paid professionals. He was never seen at the local clubs like Across the Waves, nor did he dine at Bundaberg’s better restaurants. (At his prior residence in Sapphire on Miller, also at Bargara, he was often seen sitting alone in his apartment and chain-smoking.)
Indeed, his life soon formed a triangular pattern – he either worked, rested and watched videos in his apartment, or ate at his favourite restaurant, the Indian Curry Bazaar, beneath the concrete water tower and near the cemetery.
It was there, in the darkly curtained upstairs dining room, that he held court. He would often eat alone. Or he would invite doctors, interns and nurses from the hospital to join him. At least twice a week he stopped by for takeaway.
At the Curry Bazaar he was respected. He felt at home amongst Bundaberg’s small and yet disparate Indian community. He was a success. Dr Patel earned roughly seven times the average annual income of the residents of Bundaberg, but he never left a tip.
He was, in essence, a classic loner. He never embedded himself in the community. As far as Bundaberg – this small, trusting sugar town of 46,000 people – was concerned, he may as well not have existed. That is, if he hadn’t skewered the very heart of what is important to a provincial city like this. The hospital. Health. Care.
Bundaberg Base Hospital, backing onto the Burnett River and close to the CBD, is and always has been, one of the primary focal points of the town. It was here that Dr Patel established absolute rule. He was rude, dictatorial and totally convinced of his own genius as a surgeon.
Once, after a spell in the operating theatre, he returned to the doctor’s change rooms to find his immaculate Gucci shoes missing. The next day a padlock was secured to the change room doors.
His total self-confidence, his monstrous egotism, was, however, strangely at odds with the friendless loner outside the precinct of the hospital. It was as if he only truly lived when he wore a medical smock and had a scalpel in his hand.
Even as questions were increasingly raised about his competency, and there were suspicions that his handiwork may have even resulted in death, he showed no signs of alarm. It was, in fact, the opposite. The queries only galvanised his belief in himself.
Meanwhile, he was tearing a community apart.
One of his former patients, Beryl Crosby, who Dr Patel had wrongly diagnosed with cancer, said: “We’re still asking that one question – how could this have happened to us? This is a community that sticks together in the hard times. Now nobody’s trusting anything anymore. We believe more than 1,000 people, patients, were involved with Dr Patel. It’s difficult to comprehend.”
The degrees of separation between the people of Bundaberg and the victims of Dr Patel are almost non-existent. Almost every second person in the town knows of a victim.
Even in Bargara, where Dr Patel strolled the streets and made his crayon sketches, the people who served him over shop counters knew or were related to victims of his handiwork. A woman in the bakery said last week a friend’s brother-in-law had suffered under Patel. A local clothes store owner said her mother and father-in-law, both deceased, had been patients of the doctor.
Mayor Kay McDuff said the city was in a state of shock.
“Bundaberg has drawn quite a lot of sympathy from other areas in the State,” she said. “I’m appalled that our community has been the one to suffer at his hands. The community mourns for his victims. But we’ve got a lot of get up and go in Bundaberg, and we can move on.”
That shock and subsequent grief, however, is beginning to transform into anger. Despite the government announcing a Royal Commission, the locals are taking matters into their own hands.
With a tragedy of this magnitude, time becomes more urgent and compressed, particularly for the victims. They want a fast track to understanding, to healing.
At the centre of this is Beryl Crosby. Less than two weeks ago she put her head above the crowd and demanded answers. Since then, she has inadvertently become a figurehead for victims. The central beam of support, still standing amidst the wreckage.
In the last ten days she has been patiently compiling the List – the names of bone fide victims of Dr Patel. As of last Thursday, when she held yet another victim support meeting in the John Giovannoni Bar at the Across the Waves sports complex, the List had exceeded 100 people.
It is this, Crosby’s List, that may be the most stark, brutal and accurate document in existence of Dr Patel’s crimes.
“This whole thing is going to get bigger – it’s turning into something monstrous,” she said. “The List. Everyone’s after it. I will not let it go. I don’t want to make these people victims again.”
At Thursday night’s meeting, one women refused to enter the bar because of the presence of the media, and specifically declined to be photographed. It revealed a sensitivity now to the next stage of this drama which is the fight for fiscal compensation. In such a small community, where everybody knows each other, the question of money and legitimate compensation is bound to be the subject of whispers. Who deserves what? Should X be getting more or less money than Y?
Already legal wheels are in motion. Carter Capner have been retained by the people on Crosby’s List. Both Shine Roche McGowan and Slater & Gordon have a handful of potential clients. The word last week was that law firms from both north and south of Bundaberg had arrived in town.
As for Dr Patel, he has vanished. When he left his apartment in Bargara Blue he did so with minimum fuss and in his usual fastidious way. He had few possessions to worry about – two boxes, and a suitcase.
A week before flying out of Australia at Easter, following allegations made in State Parliament by his neighbour, Rob Messenger, he held a farewell upstairs at the Indian Curry Bazaar, with its illuminated picture of the Taj Mahal in the front window.
What started as a modest gathering of about 14 people soon swelled to 31. Some of his colleagues from the hospital were there. Toasts were made. Dr Patel gave a speech, and handed out gifts of bottles of wine. He took photographs of the happy occasion with his camera.
It was revealed, later, that Dr Patel’s guests had no idea it was a “farewell” dinner.
As Dr Patel said his final goodbyes that evening, he would have gone out to his car to make that final drive to his apartment over at Bargara. At the back of the car park beside the restaurant, he may have glanced up at the giant illuminated water tower.
It’s unlikely it crossed his mind that only a few hundred metres away, in the dark, was the cold marble headstone of Barry John Johnson.