THE BYSTANDER EFFECT IN THE GONZALEZ-ANGULO TRIAL

The Bystander Effect-The
Real Message of the Gonzalez-Angulo Trial to Date

By

Leonard Zwelling

         In March of 1964, a young woman was stabbed to death in Kew
Gardens, Queens, New York City. Her name was Kitty Genovese. In the weeks after
the murder, a disturbing set of events came to light. It appeared that despite
several neighbors having heard a disturbance in the alley below their
apartments, possibly including the victim’s screams for help, the act of
violence was not conveyed to the police in a sufficiently timely fashion and
Ms. Genovese died of her wounds. Her killer is still in prison.

Stories
at the time overhyped the issue of none of the neighbors having helped the victim
as some may have called the police. Nonetheless, the concept of everyone
watching and not acting to save another person in harm’s way wormed its way
into the public consciousness as the “bystander effect” in which each observer
thought someone else would do the right thing. Basically, “I don’t want to get
involved.” 

         As I sit in the 248th District Criminal Court
observing the witnesses in the Gonzalez-Angulo trial, I am far more struck by
the possible adverse consequences of the bystander effect in this case than I
am in who poisoned who and why. This is why I believe that this is an MD
Anderson story and not simply about the alleged actions of one faculty member
against another.

         So far, from what I have seen, heard and read, it seems
likely that, despite a ridiculous argument put up by the defense that this
injury was not due to antifreeze poisoning, the victim, Dr. George Blumenschein,
ingested ethylene glycol sometime probably in the morning of Sunday, January
27, 2013. The prosecution’s theory is that it occurred when Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo,
one of Dr. Blumenschein’s casual lovers (and he is reported to have had
several), laced his coffee with ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze.
This substance is readily available in many research labs at MD Anderson where
the two worked, and surely could have come from anywhere.

As
I understand it, there is no smoking gun in this case. No ethylene glycol-containing
coffee has been found. There is no coffee cup with the residua of such a
substance on which Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo’s fingerprints appear. No one saw her do
it and the five-month delay between the almost fatal hospitalization of Dr.
Blumenschein in the MD Anderson intensive care unit in acute renal failure and
the arrest of Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo is also bizarre.

         There’s a lot of fodder for the tabloids coming out as the
business of a criminal trial grinds on with twelve jurors and two alternates
getting a far more intense lesson in human toxicology during today’s trial
(September 18)  than they ever bargained
for.

         All this is of prurient interest, of course, and will surely
make it to the supermarket check-out line. But what has struck me so far is
that I simply cannot see where the MD Anderson leadership was as:

1.  This highly visible couple was carrying on an affair
about which “everyone knew” (but each individual of the couple denied to a supervisor when asked
directly) and yet also were working colleagues trying to start a drug
development program to compete with the established MD Anderson Phase 1 program
already in existence.

2.  Dr. Blumenschein was clearly behaving like a 16 year
old despite having major patient care responsibilities. A friend has said that
if I am looking for an absence of promiscuity, the Texas Medical Center is no
place to look. Perhaps, but when I was at Anderson, we were expected to set the
standards not concern ourselves with the behaviors of others with whom we
shared a parking lot.

3.  Were any of the leaders even aware of the possible downside
of these relationships? At least two people I know tried to make this right but
were unable to do so, one by directly alerting a supervisor to the problem. I
suspect there is much more to that than I know now or may ever know.

4.  But when the typical “back biting of academia because
there is so little at stake” morphs into questionable financial matters,
nepotism, conflicts of interest and self-dealing, not to mention taking large
sums of money from less than admirable foreign governments to support building
projects on a state university campus, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised what
will be on the docket next.

I
am not attending this trial to find out whodunit. That will be in the Chronicle
soon enough and I can read it. I am desperately searching for a clue as to how
the greatest force for good in the fight against cancer has become such a den
of iniquity.

No
matter what happens in this trial, I hope this is a wake-up call for those in
Austin overseeing The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

PAY
ATTENTION! Austin, we have a problem and no one in Houston seems able to get
their hands around it or devise a solution. Please do not let the screams go
unheard any longer. You simply cannot be bystanders any more.

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