‘Bad Surgeon: Love Under The Knife’ Explained: What Happened To Paolo Macchiarini?


Bad Surgeon: Love Under the Knife is a new Netflix documentary series that brings to the screen the tales of a man who once claimed to have been the personal doctor of Hillary Clinton and also the Pope. Hailed as a revolutionary practitioner of modern medicine by the media, Dr. Macchiarini was very well-known for his experiments with stem cell research and possible treatments from it. But there was also a fall from grace waiting for the distinguished man, as terrible allegations both in his professional and private life started to surface. Bad Surgeon is about this very shocking story and makes for a fairly interesting watch.

How did Paolo Macchiarini become popular?

Born to Italian parents living in Switzerland, Paolo Macchiarini spent his early years in the country, developing a keen interest in medicine from the very beginning. When of age, the young man studied medicine and trained to be a surgeon, gathering academic degrees from various schools around the world. Already making a name for himself in the world of medicine, Macchiarini then went on to serve as a visiting faculty member and practicing surgeon at the incredibly renowned Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Located in Stockholm, Karolinska is considered the best institution for studies in medicine in the entire world. It is, in fact, a body of this very institution that decides on the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is, therefore, an extremely distinguished hospital.

It was mainly at Karolinska that Dr. Paolo Macchiarini started to conduct experiments on a very important aspect that could not be solved earlier—the treatment of cancer. His focus was on specific cases of cancer, though, in which the trachea of patients got damaged beyond repair because of the terminal illness. Combining the use of plastic in modern medicine and the developing research on stem cells, the doctor came up with the idea to replace the trachea completely in patients. Macchiarini’s solution was to have very specific cut-outs of plastic made in the shape of the human trachea, lace them with the stem cells of each of the patients, and then put the artificial pipes inside the throats of the patients. The hypothesis was that the stem cells of the particular individual would start to grow on the plastic pipe and become part of the body over a short period of time, leading to a complete replacement of the organ inside one’s body.

In the initial interviews, the doctor himself stated that this procedure was still extremely risky and unusual and that it was in the experimental stage, in a way. But desperate patients were not too hard to come by, and at his facility in Karolinska, Dr. Macchiarini conducted the operation on Ademariam Beyene, a man who had come down from Iceland for treatments. Although the operation took a long time due to its very complicated process, it was ultimately deemed a success, and Beyene was stated to have been cured. A number of other patients soon followed, and the doctor started to gain superstar status, with operations being carried out in various countries like Italy, Sweden, and Russia. A particular patient by the name of Christopher Lyles was also flown in by his family members from the United States, as Dr. Macchiarini’s experimental treatment was still not legal on American soil. Lyles was declared fit after the surgery and was returned to his family in the United States. In Russia, the superstar doctor treated a woman named Yulia Tuulik, who was basically selected from a lottery draw of sorts, since numerous patients wanted to be helped by the miraculous treatment. Back in Sweden, in Karolinska, another woman named Yesim Cetir came down from Turkey to get the artificial trachea installed, and she, too, was declared fit and healthy.

It was no surprise that patients from all across the world were embracing Paolo Macchiarini as a heroic savior who was performing miracles for the sick and the helpless. Soon, the man was covered by news channels and programs from all across the Western world, and his experimental treatment was hailed as a groundbreaking innovation in modern medicine. A German film production shot and released a documentary film on the man, titled “Supercells,” in which the whole process of the artificial trachea surgery on Yulia Tuulik was shot and covered. The American news channel NBC was also in the process of making a documentary on a child named Hannah Warren, who had been born without a windpipe. Little Hannah was being operated on by Macchiarini, and within some time, the documentary became about the celebrity doctor Paolo Macchiarini himself. However, what nobody seemed to care about was the health conditions of each of the patients after their operation, and this was where the scary truths about Macchiarini lied.

What are the allegations made against Macchiarini?

Although a number of these trachea replacement operations took place in multiple countries around 2011–13, all conducted by Paolo Macchiarini, almost all of the patients greatly suffered right after the procedure. Almost all of them contracted some deadly complications over a very short period of time after the operation, and they all lost their lives tragically. Macchiarini had never told his patients that the procedure was completely failsafe or that it would be easy, as he himself mentions in an old interview about how every minor thing had to work in his favor for the operation to work. Even the cutout of the plastic tracheas needed to fit the natural ones in patients exactly so that the natural ones, which were already taken out surgically, could be replaced without any hitch.

However, the very manner in which the patients suffered and died after their operations did raise some alarm. Some went through terrible pain, while others developed an unnaturally bad cough. There were infections suspected to have been caused because of the plastic stuck in the bodies. As the mother of Yulia Tuulik told one of the investigative journalists in an earlier production, her daughter had apparently coughed up her own insides only a couple of days after her surgery. What was even more concerning for the families, and by now to some of the assisting surgeons, was that Dr. Macchiarini paid no attention or care to the patients after the operation was over. It was almost as if the man was simply using human lives to improve his numerical statistics, and even lying about that too.

During the initial phase of the stem cell-laced trachea replacement surgeries, Paolo Macchiarini claimed that the patients eventually died because they were suffering from extremely complicated diseases. In order to prove this belief of his, the doctor sought out young and healthy patients who were not terminally ill but would benefit from the operation anyway. Yesim Cetir was one such individual who did not really rely on the procedure in order to stay alive, but in the process, she lost her life as well. The number of deaths one after another, and especially the gruesome manner in which they were taking place, made one of Dr. Macchiarini’s assistants, Kalle Grinnemo, particularly suspicious of what was going on.

A practicing surgeon himself, Grinnemo was part of Macchiarini’s team at Karolinska Institute, and another doctor, Oscar Simonson, quickly joined Grinnemo in searching for the truth. When a Swedish television production company also came along looking for information for Macchiarini, the case against the celebrity doctor really started to be built. Based on academic and experimentation records gathered at the hospital in Sweden, it was found that Paolo Macchiarini had never conducted the trachea replacement operation on animals before trying it on humans, as was the legal requirement. In essence, the man was making helpless and desperate patients his own guinea pigs, conducting experiments on them without any care for their lives.

When the Swedish production team got involved to start shooting a documentary on this dark secret about Macchiarini, they reached out to the German team who had made “Supercells” and got access to unused footage from the film. Based on these unused video and audio recordings, a very callous and aloof nature of Macchiarini could be established, as in many cases, he knew about the complications and the shortcomings of his situation, and yet he went ahead with the procedure. A characteristic of the man was that he never denied the risks involved. In fact, when the Netflix crew contacted the “Supercells” production team, they stated that Macchiarini’s very nature of mentioning the setbacks and attempting to solve them made the man seem more genuine. However, under the surface was his extreme drive for power and importance, which drove him towards a disregard for human lives.

Macchiarini had undoubtedly made friends with important people, though, as the Karolinska Institute totally backed him when Grinnemo and Simonson made their first set of allegations. Not only did the two surgeons lose their jobs, but they were also handed over to the police for interrogation with regards to the data leak that they had committed. The top brass of KI obviously had to protect their own reputation in this case, but they also had monetary reasons for supporting Macchiarini. After all, the trachea replacement surgery was an extremely expensive one, and KI had planned to open up a specialized clinic with Dr. Macchiarini in order to earn tremendous profits.

How did Paolo Macchiarini lie in his personal life?

Along with the professional field, Paolo Macchiarini turned out to be a swindler and cheat in his personal life as well, which is also a part of the content in Bad Surgeon. A woman named Benita Alexander, who is a journalist by profession, features throughout the Netflix docuseries, talking about her interactions with the superstar doctor. Benita met Macchiarini during NBC’s documentary on him, as the woman was a leading journalist for NBC at the time. The two fell in love very quickly, and Paolo’s charm and exquisite ways were enough to keep her involved. During their relationship, Paolo would often claim to be the personal doctor of important people like the Pope and Barack Obama, also claiming that he was part of an inside circle of doctors who looked after the most influential people in the world. All of this was undoubtedly a series of lies.

Despite all his extravagant vacation plans, Paolo Macchiarini never took Benita to his house in Barcelona, always canceling any such plans at the last minute. While Benita overlooked these matters for two years, she finally decided to question them when a bizarre incident took place. Paolo had told her that their marriage would be conducted by the Pope himself at a cathedral in Italy, but soon it was found that the cathedral had no such booking and the Pope would not even be in Europe at the time. When confronted about these lies, Paolo made a hilarious claim, stating that he was actually a CIA spy under the ruse of a doctor. When Benita finally went over to his address in Barcelona along with some of her friends, she found out the bitter truth—Paolo Macchiarini was already married with two kids. In fact, the doctor had cheated on other women as well, one of whom appears in the Bad Surgeon documentary to talk about her experience. It was Benita’s story, published in Vanity Fair magazine, that really called out Paolo Macchiarini’s shameless lies, and this was soon followed by the Swedish documentary film on his professional misconduct.

What happened to Paolo Macchiarini?

The case of Paolo Macchiarini seems to be that of a serial liar who started at a comparatively small level and then made bigger fibs until he created an entire life and world of falsities around him. At least in his personal life, the man did not really need to cheat so many of the women, for he did not ever lack attention from the outside world. Benita does believe, though, that the reason for Paolo to date her was her profession of journalism, as the man wanted to use her to defend his image, which did indeed take place when allegations were first raised against him. Since no case against these acts of swindling seems to have been filed against the man, no justice regarding the same has been meted out.

On the other hand, the superstar doctor’s negligent attitude in the professional field seems to either be too difficult to prove or comparatively lesser than his lies to the women. A case was filed in the Swedish courts, but he was found not guilty in all cases except for the death of Yesim Cetir. The sentence was delayed, and the man could easily leave the country because of it. However, after the prosecution’s appeal, the court ruled in 2023 that Macchiarini was guilty of aggravated assault on three of the patients. The man has been sentenced to only two and a half years in prison, which is still nothing compared to what he deserved if he had willingly pushed patients toward their deaths. The doctor still refuses to accept the judgment and continues to claim innocence. He has even appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court, the result of which will still take time to arrive.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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