Saturday 22 July 2017

Medical training was like 'virtual slavery'

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Scholarship doctor cleared by Medical Council of misconduct

A KENYAN doctor who angered her Irish benefactors by reneging on a prestigious €250,000 scholarship has spoken of her relief at being cleared of professional misconduct by the Medical Council.

Dr Irene Mwangi, 33, was accused of putting her "career before honour" when she disappeared rather than return to Kenya on a five-year hospital contract, as was required under the scholarship terms. But the Medical Council ruled a fortnight ago that the radiologist was not guilty of professional misconduct, despite accusations of "betrayal" and "breach of trust" by the organisers of the scholarship.

Speaking from her new home in Washington, Dr Mwangi said she was "very happy at the outcome". She added: "It's quite a relief."

According to the doctor, she has already paid her dues to the scholarship by working as a radiologist in the Mater Hospital. The inquiry heard how her colleagues were paid €64,000 a year, while she was on a scholarship allowance of up to €1,400 a month even though she did the same work.

"It wasn't like a scholarship where you go to class and you just receive the money. I was actually providing a service and the value for the four years was about €240,000," she said. "In effect I feel I did pay for my scholarship through my work which was worth around €240,000. I think that's something that should be appreciated."

Dr Mwangi's case was certainly one of the most curious to come before Medical Council's Fitness to Practise committee. Over four days of hearings, the committee heard the scholarship's illustrious organisers accuse her of "absolute betrayal" and acting "disgracefully and dishonourably".

Dr Mwangi claimed she was patronised, under-valued and likened the scholarship to an archaic form of "bonded-servitude" that locked her in for 10 years. It also drew unwelcome publicity to The O'Halpin Linders Scholarship, founded by Joe Linders -- a wealthy car dealer and developer -- in honour of his late wife, Dr Dara O'Halpin, a consultant radiologist.

The aim was to train doctors from the developing world in Ireland and send them home to share their expertise. Dr Mwangi was their first candidate. She came to Ireland in 2004 and was due to return to Nairobi in 2007 for a five-year contract. Instead she left the country after describing her relationship with the scholarship organisers as "like a bad marriage".

The deal included free tuition, free accommodation, an allowance and a laptop. But Dr Mwangi claimed she was not treated with respect. In one instance she claimed she was threatened with deportation when she asked if she could continue her studies in Ireland for an extra year. She said she was "too frightened" to tell the scholarship organisers that she didn't want to go back Kenya.

So the doctor let them believe her intention was to return home and even attended a farewell party in her honour, hosted by Joe Linders at his Clonskeagh home days before she was due to fly back to Kenya.

"Yes, it was difficult," she said. "Like any human being you want to be upfront with everyone you are dealing with. I really hold great respect for Mr Joe Linders. One of the things that I wanted to do was really thank him and his family for setting up this scholarship. The fact that things had gone so badly in this scholarship should not take away from the intention that he had of setting up the scholarship."

Mr Linders made his own feelings clear at the inquiry. He said: "I felt I had to establish publicly the character of this lady. It seemed the only way to do this was to go to the Medical Council, point out the facts and see what ensued."

Dr Mwangi said: "As I explained to the inquiry, on a number of times I tried to bring up the subject (of not going back to Kenya) but from the response I received, I knew it would not be receptive to them at all. That wasn't an option.

"Not only that, I feared the consequences. As I said at the inquiry, the fears were not unfounded ... They brought me to the Medical Council. They contacted my employers in San Diego and the fact that they tried to get my passport withdrawn -- although they did deny that at the inquiry -- all those things are not easy things to go through."

Dr Mwangi later found a position in San Diego and has since moved to Washington where she is doing a fellowship in body imaging. She has an Irish husband and a child but declines to talk about them, save to deny that her romance had a bearing on her decision not to go back to Kenya.

Dr Mwangi doesn't want to speculate as to whether she would have gotten to where she is today without the benefit of the O'Halpin Linders scholarship but she said she is grateful.

"I was grateful for the opportunity. I just feel very sad and regretful the way things turned out. At the end, really, eventually I had no choice," she added.

Sunday Independent

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