‘I cannot be quiet about Munjed’: Kurdish filmmaker says celebrity surgeon ignored her

By Charlotte Grieve

Lisa Calan, pictured in 2017, says Munjed Al Muderis ignored her many messages for help after performing surgery on her.Credit:Eddie Jim

Kurdish filmmaker Lisa Calan received an email on July 2, 2018 from celebrity surgeon Munjed Al Muderis’ personal assistant. It left her in shock.

Calan had spent the previous six months in agonising pain trying unsuccessfully to contact the Australian surgeon from Turkey. Then his personal assistant emailed her a draft passage from Al Muderis’ second memoir, Going Back, which detailed Calan’s story – from losing both her legs in a terrorist attack to discovering his work for amputees in Sydney.

“The operation was a complete success and before she left Australia, Lisa was walking on her new robotic legs,” the draft passage read.

What the story omitted was the trauma Calan had endured after Al Muderis sent her back to Turkey with open wounds and a raging infection, then failed to answer her repeated calls for help.

“My story with Munjed is tragic and unacceptable. As a rights defender, I have to tell the truth.”

“I can’t even comprehend this behaviour,” Calan says through a translator. “How, after such a long time of not treating me, can he ask me to be in his book?”

Months later she responded to the message: she would not permit her story to be used because of Al Muderis’ “ongoing refusal to engage with me or my doctors”.

The 34-year-old estimates more than 1000 messages have been sent to Al Muderis and his staff on her behalf over the past five years, many of which have been ignored or dismissed, and she believes his lack of care following surgery constitutes a gross injustice.

“This is a surgery where I have to be constantly monitored my entire life. He can’t just do this surgery on me and throw me away. I don’t accept this,” she says.

Al Muderis has denied wrongdoing and has launched defamation proceedings against The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes after a joint media investigation exposed deficiencies in the surgeon’s post-operative care, which left some patients dealing with maggot-infested wounds, crippling pain and depression.

Earlier this month he flew to Ukraine on what he described as a “humanitarian mission”. He was there “seeing patients and operating on civilians and veterans injured by the war”, he wrote in a Facebook post. He saw more than 100 patients in a few days, he wrote.

Calan asks why he is taking on more patients without finding a solution for his existing patients, and is critical of the promotion of his trip on social media. “Him being in Ukraine does not strike me as genuine. Humanitarian work should not be publicised like that,” she says. “Being a good person is something that comes from the heart.”

Calan initially did not want to speak publicly, but felt compelled to after Al Muderis’ public comments that he was unaware that some patients had suffered poor outcomes. “My story with Munjed is tragic and unacceptable. As a rights defender, I have to tell the truth.”

Al Muderis declined to comment on Calan’s experience, citing patient confidentiality, but said through his lawyers that the allegations raised in the media against him “have shocked and surprised me”.

“Nevertheless, I would like to say that when I commit to treating a patient, it is for life and I have always made every effort with all of my patients to respect this commitment. My focus, with my team, remains on continuing to evolve technologies in the osseointegration space in Australia and abroad for amputees, to enable mobility, reduce pain and facilitate a better quality of life. I am grateful for the continued support I receive from my patients.”

‘Last chance’

Calan has appeared in this masthead once before, to share her experience surviving the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attack at a pro-Kurdish rally in Diyarbakir, in south-east Turkey. In that report, she explained that osseointegration – a surgery where a titanium rod is inserted into an amputee’s residual bone and connected to a prosthetic limb – was her “last chance” at walking.

Al Muderis’ team said the surgery would cost between $US170,000 and $US180,000 ($267,000), but offered a discount so she would only pay $US80,000 ($119,000). She crowdfunded the balance and, around October 2017, flew to Sydney for the operation, filled with hope. Soon, the trouble began.

Gulfer Olan, the president of the Australian Kurdish Association, visited Calan in hospital the day after the surgery.

“She was in extreme pain, she was literally shaking in her bed. The next week, he discharged her,” Olan says.

Calan was discharged to recover in a hotel next to the hospital before Olan arranged for her to be transferred to the Hills Private Hospital in Sydney’s west. Her wounds were open, infected and bleeding, and the staff’s response was to give her the painkiller endone, she says. Olan recalls Al Muderis telling Calan the complications were “normal” and saying “you’ll be fine”. The reality appeared different.

“The look of the thing was terrible. It was making me feel sick to see it like that. There was meat coming out of her leg, the flesh around the implant. It was growing and growing, and he wasn’t doing anything about it. What kind of doctor is this?” Olan says.

Munjed Al Muderis.

Over the next three months, Calan was frequently in hospital with pain and infection, once so severe she ended up on an antibiotic drip. Her medical visa was due to expire in January 2018, but she did not feel well enough to return to Turkey and wanted to stay until the wounds had closed. However, she says Al Muderis was adamant she had to leave and became worried that she would apply for asylum, which would create problems for his business. Olan says the Kurdish community pleaded with Al Muderis to extend Calan’s visa, but were denied. She left before the visa expired.

The surgeon told Calan he would be available if ever she needed help and would closely monitor her progress – a promise that she says turned out to be untrue.

His team provided a list of doctors in Turkey who he said could provide assistance but when she started calling them, “Every single doctor I went to said ‘We don’t know why we’re on that list, we don’t know anything about that procedure’,” she says.

As her condition worsened, Calan presented to emergency hospitals but no doctor would touch her because the procedure she had undergone was unknown. She eventually found a surgeon in Diyarbakır who believed an abscess was causing the pain and recommended surgery to cut the skin around the implant.

All this time, Calan and her English-speaking friend, who acted as a translator and asked not to be named, were trying to contact Al Muderis for advice. Olan and other Kurdish community members in Sydney also tried calling his office and mobile, with no success. “He eventually blocked us all,” Olan says.

Calan proceeded with the surgery recommended by the Turkish doctor, which caused an eight-hour bleed and almost killed her. Specialist doctors would later say it was the wrong treatment that exacerbated her pain and suffering.

Lisa Calan was sent back to Turkey with open and infected wounds. Credit:Lisa Calan

‘Getting ridiculous’

After struggling with complications following her return to Turkey, Al Muderis invited Calan to meet him in Baghdad in December 2017 – where he was travelling with ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program to perform surgeries on veterans and civilians from Iraq.

But this was not possible. As a survivor of an ISIS bomb blast and activist, she feared for her safety, and she was not physically well enough to travel.

“I don’t know why he proposed it to me. Baghdad is not a place I can go to. As a doctor, he should know that. I asked what other options are there – he didn’t respond,” Calan says.

Calan cannot speak fluent English, so her friend took control of most of the communications with Al Muderis. The Age and Herald has viewed text message exchanges spanning six months throughout 2018, where many questions went unanswered.

“Lisa’s pain is getting worse and her doctors say they don’t have enough experience in the matter to get her help,” said one text message that was not responded to.

“This is getting ridiculous,” another said.

In April 2018, Calan emailed Al Muderis and his team. “Why has he still not replied? I am not asking for too much; I only want, as a patient, to receive information and recommendations from my doctor,” Calan wrote. “Please do not leave me alone anymore.”

By August, another email from Calan shows how desperate the situation had become: “Did you get a chance to look at the scans we sent last week? If so, do you think I can come to Australia for treatment? My pain has become intolerable and I am unable to have any semblance of a normal life. If anything, my situation is worse than before the surgery.”

By the end of 2018, she had given up on the idea of going back to Australia and sought assistance in Europe. Through Al Muderis’ colleague Solon Rosenblatt, Calan travelled to the Netherlands to see specialists in osseointegration. But during one consult, Calan says the doctors said Al Muderis had called and insisted he was responsible for her treatment, so they declined to provide further care.

Calan started feeling like she was living in a nightmare. The pain continued worsening, and her wounds were bleeding almost daily. “It was almost as if Munjed tried to prevent me from getting medical treatment … I got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Again with Rosenblatt’s help, she saw German surgeon Horst Aschoff, who had worked with and trained Al Muderis. When Aschoff’s team saw the state of her legs, she says they were shocked. The tissue that had grown around the implant in her right leg was caught in the implant. The bone in her left leg was protruding and the wound was open. The doctors agreed to operate on her right leg, but not her left, as they said it would be too dangerous. No one could believe she was able to walk on the prosthetic limbs in that state.

“They said it was clear I had struggled a lot. They said lots of wrong interventions had occurred,” Calan says.

Calan was out of money. She was unable to work in the years following the explosion, and spent thousands of dollars travelling to Europe for treatment. The German team said they would sponsor her to have the implants changed, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the treatment could not go ahead. Today, Calan still deals with problems. The wounds are still open and infections are common. She has entered into a deep depression.

“I don’t know how to resolve this.”

Lisa Calan in 2017, two years after she lost her legs when Islamic State bombed a rally in Turkey.Credit:Eddie Jim

‘I cannot be quiet’

Calan says she knew complications could arise, and had accepted that before agreeing to have osseointegration, but she had no idea she would be left on her own. She is thankful for the ability to walk again and is aware many of Al Muderis’ patients are happy with their outcomes. But, she would never allow him to operate on her again and still has many unanswered questions.

“He created a lot of problems in my life. To reduce my own anger, I tried to forgive him. I tried to understand him. But I really can’t understand why he behaved this way. Why didn’t he contact my doctors in Turkey? Why did he tell me to go to Baghdad? Why did he not want me to see doctors in Europe? I’ve been searching for an answer, but I can’t come up with anything.”

She fears Al Muderis will paint her as crazy or try to shift blame, but is speaking out to encourage him to improve his aftercare, so no other patients have to experience what she has.

“As an activist, I cannot be quiet about Munjed.”

After this masthead’s initial investigation was published, Al Muderis’ insurer Avant suspended his cover and began its own investigation into his practice. The following week, Al Muderis announced in a cheerful email to patients that he could operate again.

Calan responded – her last contact with the surgeon: “I know this is a mass message, but I wanted to write it anyway. There’s no point in me getting you back to work. Because my experience with you is obvious. Dozens of messages, calls and communications went unanswered. I’ve been struggling alone for 5 years. I will never forgive your approach to me.”

Again, she did not receive a response.

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