One-year suspension sought for Alberta surgeon for hospital noose incident

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A lawyer for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta's complaints director said Wednesday that Dr. Wynand Wessels should receive a one-year suspension for tying this noose and taping it to an operating room door in 2016. Wessels' lawyer argued for a much lighter penalty. (Submitted by Dr. Carrie Kollias - image credit)
A lawyer for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta's complaints director said Wednesday that Dr. Wynand Wessels should receive a one-year suspension for tying this noose and taping it to an operating room door in 2016. Wessels' lawyer argued for a much lighter penalty. (Submitted by Dr. Carrie Kollias - image credit)

The complaints director for Alberta's College of Physicians and Surgeons is seeking a one-year licence suspension for a white Grande Prairie surgeon who tied a noose and taped it to an operating room door.

The noose was "a deadly threat. It is a symbol of intimidation and threat," Craig Boyer, the complaint director's lawyer said Wednesday.

Boyer told a college tribunal it was critical to maintain trust in the health-care system and that it needed to send a message to doctors and the public about the inappropriateness of Dr. Wynand Wessels' actions.

But Wessels' lawyer, James Heelan, argued the surgeon should receive a "short and sharp" one-month suspension, with two weeks excluded to account for an unpaid leave of absence Alberta Health Services encouraged Wessels to take after CBC News first revealed the noose incident in July 2020.

Heelan said his proposed sanction, combined with the professional and financial fallout Wessels has already endured, "and the Scarlet Letter that has been placed on his forehead in the media more than satisfies the public's confidence in the integrity of the medical profession."

Earlier Wednesday, Wessels testified that the noose story had received international attention and had a significant negative impact on him and his career, including his removal from Alberta Health Services committees, a University of Alberta teaching position, and a charity.

He reiterated his previous testimony that his decision to tie and tape a noose to an operating room door on June 24, 2016, was stupid and impulsive, but it was not meant as a racist symbol.

He said it was part of an unrelated inside joke with a nurse about a lack of disciplinary action against disruptive staff. He said he tied it in case anyone "misbehaved."

"It was stupid. It was probably the most stupid thing I have done in my life," Wessels said.

Name withheld
Name withheld

Wessels had earlier testified he did not know Black surgical assistant, Dr. Oduche Onwuanyi, would be working in the operating room on which the noose was taped.

Onwuanyi previously testified he believed the noose was racist and was meant to threaten and intimidate him.

On Wednesday, Wessels refuted allegations from Onwuanyi and another Black surgeon that he had previously made racist comments at work.

Surgeon says noose not motivated by racism

The college announced a hearing for Wessels shortly after CBC News revealed his actions in July 2020. It subsequently found him guilty of unprofessional conduct but ruled there was insufficient evidence to conclude he was motivated by racism or intended to create a racist symbol. An independent consultant, hired by Alberta Health, echoed that finding.

Wessels' defence has been two-pronged. He claimed he did not tie a noose but instead a lasso that was supposed to represent a bonding exercise. He said because he grew up in rural South Africa, he was also unaware of the violent, racist symbolism associated with the noose in North America.

The second prong has been a concerted attempt to establish that the noose incident was in response to a long-standing toxic work culture at the hospital. Wessels blamed this culture nearly exclusively on fellow surgeon Dr. Scott Wiens, who was described by several witnesses as verbally abusive, disruptive and dishonest.

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In his closing argument, Heelan engaged in a scathing, prolonged attack on Wiens, who he accused of being a malicious liar who pushed a false narrative that the noose was racist and aimed at Onwuanyi as part of an attempt to "destroy the career of Dr. Wessels at any cost."

Heelan repeatedly claimed Wiens colluded with another surgeon, Dr. Carrie Kollias, to leak the story to CBC News in 2020. In fact, CBC News had learned of the noose incident in 2017 from sources outside the hospital and tried unsuccessfully to verify the story several times in the intervening years.

'A deadly threat'

Boyer, in his closing submission, stressed that regardless of some defence witnesses' testimonies that they did not view the noose as racist, it can only be interpreted one way — as a "deadly threat."

He criticized hospital management's decision to informally investigate the incident, saying that led to a "failure of due process" for Onwuanyi and Indigenous anesthesiologist Dr. Alika Lafontaine.

Heelan told the tribunal that both Onwuanyi and Lafontaine had a right to be upset over the noose, but he claimed they were not at the time of the incident as shown by notes of interviews with them. They both testified they were not allowed to review notes of their interviews with AHS and they disputed the content.

Heelan told the tribunal Wiens had "polluted" Onwuanyi's mind, causing the Nigerian-born doctor to view the incident as racist.

The tribunal gave no indication of when it would issue its ruling on what, if any, penalty it applies to Wessels.

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