Surgeon defends treatment of patient who complained of ‘intolerable’ pain

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A former patient of high-profile surgeon Munjed Al Muderis told him less than a year after her surgery that she was in intolerable pain and believed she was worse off than before her operation, the Federal Court has heard.

Al Muderis, clinical professor at Macquarie University, is suing The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes over reports published and aired in September 2022. He alleges the reports convey a range of defamatory meanings, including that he negligently performed osseointegration surgery and provided inadequate aftercare.

Surgeon Munjed Al Muderis (centre) and his legal team including Sue Chrysanthou, SC (left).Credit: Kate Geraghty

Nine, the owner of the media outlets, is seeking to rely on a range of defences, including a new public interest defence, truth, and honest opinion.

In October 2017, Al Muderis performed osseointegration surgery in Sydney on Kurdish filmmaker Lisa Calan, who lost her lower limbs in an Islamic State bomb blast in 2015. The surgery involves inserting titanium rods into an amputee’s residual bone to allow it to be connected to a prosthetic limb.

The court was shown an email Calan sent to Al Muderis in 2018, after she had returned to Turkey, in which she said her “pain has become intolerable” and she was “unable to have any semblance of a normal life”.

“If anything, my situation is worse than before the surgery,” she wrote.

But Al Muderis told the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday that he treated Calan “to give her mobility; to allow her to walk again” and he did not give her the “false impression” it would be pain-free.

He said Calan “had pain when she came to me in Australia” and may well have continued to have pain after the surgery.

“I never promised Lisa a normal life,” he said. “I feel, and I believe, that I have achieved the goal of what I promised her to do. What I promised, I delivered.”

Asked if he responded to the email, Al Muderis said: “I do not recall.”

Later that month, Calan wrote in another email: “Very very pain please help me.”

The court heard Calan was discharged from Macquarie University Hospital to a hotel nearby on October 17, 2017, six days after her surgery on October 11.

Al Muderis’ consultation report from that day said “unfortunately Lisa is having issues with pain and has had issues leaving the hospital. She states that it is difficult for her to move because of the pain and is having trouble with this.” The pain was described in the report as “moderate and not severe”.

Matt Collins, KC, acting for the media outlets, asked Al Muderis if he recalled Calan inquiring, via a friend acting as an interpreter, whether she could stay in hospital longer than the week allotted.

“I recall something to that effect,” Al Muderis said.

“I suggest to you that what you said to her were words to this effect: ‘It will cost you a thousand US dollars a night to stay beyond the period. You need to leave and get on with your life’,” Collins said.

“That is not true,” Al Muderis replied.

Al Muderis told the court that “normally people [who have] osseointegration stay in the hospital four days” and Calan “did stay longer than what she was proposed to stay”.

The court heard that Calan was ultimately admitted to The Hills Private Hospital on October 29, 2017, where she remained for almost a month. A discharge summary from the private hospital on November 26 said she was “currently on antibiotics due to infection”.

Al Muderis agreed that Calan had told him she wanted to stay in Australia, but said he did not recall her saying there were no implant doctors in Turkey.

He said he told her she needed to go home, but denied he told Calan he was worried she would apply for asylum or seek an extension of her visa because it would have negative implications for him.

A consultation report dated November 21, 2017, said to have been dictated by another doctor on behalf of Al Muderis, said that “we feel that a considerable amount of [Calan’s] pain and discomfort is psychological and that she simply needs to get out of The Hills as often as possible and … see some of Australia”.

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