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Violence by doctors alarms profession


BOSTON - One practiced plastic surgery in upscale Andover. The others were affiliated with two renowned Harvard teaching hospitals. Each, authorities say, ended his career as a healer in a burst of deadly violence.

Within 48 hours this week, three Boston-area physicians have appeared in court facing murder charges, a coincidence that is prompting some local doctors to ponder their special responsibility to remain gentle under pressure.

On Wednesday, Dr. James Kartell of Andover received a five- to eight-year prison term for shooting his wife's estranged lover to death inside the Methuen hospital where Kartell had long practiced.

On Tuesday, the defense continued to present its case in the trial of Dr. Dirk K. Greineder, who headed the allergy department at Brigham and Women's Hospital until he was accused last fall of bludgeoning his wife to death.

Also Tuesday, Dr. Richard Sharpe, a Gloucester dermatologist affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was arraigned on charges that he shot his estranged wife to death July 14 in her Wenham home. Greineder and Sharpe have pleaded not guilty.

Members of the state Board of Medicine expressed concern over the trio of murder cases. They suspended Sharpe's license Wednesday - as they did previously with Greineder's and Kartell's - and said they would redouble efforts to reach out to troubled physicians.

"The Board's Physician Health and Compliance Unit works closely with the [Massachusetts Medical Society] to ensure doctors in need of support receive assistance and supervision," said board member Dr. Peter Madras.

Doctors interviewed stressed that they see the three killings mainly as a bizarre coincidence, not as a sign that doctors have become prone to homicide. But they said that in the days since the Sharpe case erupted, it has been a hot topic in medical circles.

"I don't think there's any colleague that I've seen that I haven't had the conversation, 'Can you believe this?'" said Dr. Kenneth Arndt, who until March led the dermatology department at Beth Israel Deaconess and was Sharpe's adviser during his Harvard residency. "Every place I am, people know him or have known him."

At Massachusetts General Hospital, where Sharpe completed a fellowship, several doctors said Wednesday that they were working too hard to consider the issue, and some had not heard of the killings.

But one resident wearing blue scrubs, who declined to give his name, said the news about Sharpe had disturbed him and made him think about doctors' need to stay calm at the most stressful times.

"You'd like to think a doctor could've found another way of resolving the conflict, which is what we're taught all the time in dealing with patients," the resident, in his mid-30s, said as he grabbed a snack from a hot dog cart near the hospital. "You'd like to think we're ... maybe better than that."

Dr. Stephen J. Bergman has considered himself "a spokesman for humane medical training" since his 1978 novel "The House of God," based on his residency at Beth Israel, became a cult classic among medical trainees. He said Wednesday that he pays extra attention to murders by doctors.

"I'm especially interested in where we go wrong, how we lose our humanity," he said.

Bergman, a psychiatrist, added that middle-aged doctors have a high incidence of depression, substance abuse and suicide.

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