This Review of “Concussion” – a movie directed by Peter Landesman and starting Will Smith and Alec Baldwin – is dedicated to the work of Dr M P Chetty, a South African Pathologist who was called in to give his professional opinion when a detainee died in detention during Apartheid. The anti apartheid doctor was harassed and persecuted with all the might and terror of the Neo Nazi South African state. He was forced into exile. He now lives and works in Australia…
This outstanding film is about how doing the right thing, even as a medical doctor, can get the physician into all sorts of very serious trouble.
In a normal African country, news about this kind of film about a heroic African doctor would be shouted from the roof-tops. The publicity from the mega movie distribution houses, cinema chains and media would be in your face all the time. Sadly, that does not happen in South Africa.
If you did not know what our country is also all about, now you do.
Or you should know.
Dr Omalu was made to feel like a criminal.
The doctor had crossed the line and cared more than he was ‘supposed to.’
A public service Pittsburgh pathologist with many medical degrees, Dr Bennet Omalu dared to expose the cerebral damage that was being suffered by American football players when they head-butted and engaged in other dangerous activities in the course of participating in their aggressive sport.
Their helmets do not give them sufficient protection.
American Football is similar, in certain respects, to our rugby.
It is important to investigate how much cerebral trauma the helmetless rugby players suffer?
The harm is often intracerebral and is not detectable with CAT scans. Doctors at that time were mystified by the bizarre behaviour, memory loss, headaches, depression and sometimes violent, irresponsible and mindless acts manifested by these former professional sports stars when they reached their forties and fifties.
Macroscopic examination revealed virtually nothing to the pathologist.
Many of the athletes were, and are, Black.
The quietly spoken, dignified and professional Dr Omalu is very thorough and meticulous; an ‘alien’ Ibo from Nigeria, the Black African doctor was always under the microscope; his ability and findings would always be unashamedly questioned and doubted; he would always have to try much harder to have his work and himself accepted.
Disgrace and deportation is but a hair’s breath away for many such professionals who are melanin enriched immigrants doing very difficult work in a country conquered by Europeans and genocidally denuded of its melanin enriched indigenous inhabitants.
The pathologist’s meticulous working methods upset some of his colleagues in the public sector as his professional output would be less.
He reminded me of the South African surgeons, Mtshali and C N Pillay. They tended to work slowly but very carefully.
Dr Omalu has great respect for the deceased and he would want to know about the kind of lives that they had led before they ended up on the mortician’s table. That kind of moral code meant that he would question why young football players would behave as they did before they died prematurely, and why some even committed suicide?
The forensic scientist decided to go the extra mile and do histopathological slides of slices of the brains of the athletes. He had to do this at his own expense – he had to take the money from his savings.
The American Public Service would not allow such procedures being undertaken on the presumption that there might be pathology detectable in a brain.
This is when he saw the intracerebral bleeding and other damage that led to the unsound behaviour and premature deaths of celebrated national sporting heroes.
Sadly, many people of European origin and even other doctors had a problem with addressing Dr Omalu by his professional name in a professional environment.
We see a great deal of that in South Africa as well.
These privileged Americans looked down on him because he is Black, he is African and he is ‘alien’. How could he be a ‘real’ doctor?
The Nigerian-born doctor responded to the pernicious environment by studying almost continuously; he would not even switch on his television and, for a long time, he did not marry; the rejection and the hostility inside the ‘American Dream’ had to be experienced to be understood; he accumulated a vast array of impressive medical and other qualifications.
But, of course, that meant nothing to unempathetic, vicious racists who saw what he had achieved as ‘aberrant’ and symptomatic of an ‘unbalanced’ personality.
One reviewer of “CONCUSSION” even called Omalu’s achievements ‘comical’.
Despite all this opprobrium and deliberate lack of understanding, Dr Omalu was prepared to go out to bat, with an extraordinary zeal, for the people of his adopted country.
The foreign graduate had to convince the American establishment that his findings were accurate. His article was finally published in a medical journal, but this was just one case. Many more athletes were to die in similar circumstances before the American public would be alerted. The NFL behemoth fought our modern day Don Quixote all the way, hammer, tooth and nail.
Opposing a wealthy, all powerful, influential establishment which is abrogating its responsibility is not something to be undertaken lightly.
It is at the root of why so many South Africans, many of whom had experienced an all pervading, enervating, toxic Apartheid terrorism and persecution, (and, to an extent, still feel this) are so apathetic and are unfortunately easily co-opted.
It is far easier to ‘go with the flow‘, to be venal, and even to be a disgusting informer and whore.
It pays better for one thing; the co-opted can always go into denial about the Quislings that they are, as they travel first class and enjoy the beautiful ladies and the luxury.
The ogres in power have access to all manner of resources including the wherewithal to undermine (sometimes via the media and certain biased, whorish, traitorous, ’embedded’ journalists) the doctor’s reputation, his career, his family life, threaten his home and make a social pariah of the doctor even among his colleagues; they are happy to use gangsters to harass the doctor and his family. They make his life and the lives of those he loves an absolute, living hell.
Many South Africans had that sort of experience during Apartheid; many had their careers ruined, some lost their homes, their families disintegrated and some died prematurely.
Being a medical doctor is stressful enough. There are not many doctors who would enter the cauldron and inform the general public about serious matters like this; that would destabilise the cosy coterie of scoundrels; their peace of mind and life of opulence would be upset. It is far too dangerous. When the doctor is not even an American citizen and is courting deportation because of his ethical deeds, then one can see how brave and honourable this Nigerian doctor was.
Like many of us, the good doctor had been duped by the Statue of Liberty and the overwhelming propaganda put out by the USA’s wealthy media machine that brainwashes one from birth in every way; use is made of everyday things from movies to sitcoms to newspapers to advertisements to books to news channels; the mendacious way in which the USA is portrayed by our teachers and the educational curricula is another major problem. (‘The Free West’ etc).
Dr Omalu naively thought that the NFL would welcome his discovery of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and that they would try to make the game safer; after all, that would be in the best interest of the players and the public, right?
Unfortunately that can only happen in the dream-like USA portrayed by the propagandists. The real USA, as millions have discovered, is rather different.
From threatening phone calls to being undermined at work to having his family life disrupted, dear Dr Omalu knew it all, but still he persevered.
His greater allegiance was, in the manner of a Dennis Brutus, to an unknowing and anonymous public; the well-being and welfare of their football playing youngsters was being undermined by a greedy, rat-like cabal who tried, like the cigarette manufacturers, to keep the people ignorant.
Ignorant people may behave unjustly.
Dr Omalu reminded me of Copernicus as he had to overcome the doubts of the most eminent American physicians as well as the virulent opposition of certain co-opted, unethical doctors of the NFL. We can infer why the American doctors had not raised the alarm about the serious head injuries which recur in American Football. It turned out that one of the senior doctors of the NFL was a rheumatologist who qualified in Mexico!
Sadly, FBI agents even raided the office of Omalu’s boss, and questioned that doctor’s use of stationery and even his use of the fax machine! They also threatened Omalu. The pressure and stress was unremitting and destructive.
Criminal psychopaths made Dr Omalu feel like a criminal.
He had crossed the line and cared more than ‘he was supposed to’.
The NFL held a conference to examine Omalu’s claims but, most unethically, they would not allow Omalu to present his findings. Instead a melanin deficient doctor, (who had joined Omalu in his fight against the NFL) who had been a Football Team doctor, was called in to testify. Omalu’s claims were dismissed as injuries caused by ‘other factors’ like ‘diving into the water’.
Eventually, tormented beyond measure, Dr Omalu and his family relocated to a job in California.
After many years, the US department of health invited Dr Omalu to take up a prominent position with them. He declined the offer.
Dr Deena Padayachee is a widely published medical doctor and author who is a recipient of the Nadine Gordimer, Olive Schreiner, Quill and SALA Awards for his prose.