ON APRIL 30, 1996, Senator Edward Kennedy vigorously defended racial preferences in a statement to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Declaring that "affirmative action has paid enormous dividends in the medical context," Kennedy argued that the beneficiaries of race-conscious university admissions are "likely in later life to . . . benefit their professions and the communities in which they live."
He offered proof. "Dr. Bernard Chavis is a perfect example," the senator said. "He is the supposedly less qualified African-American student who allegedly 'displaced' Allen Bakke at the University of California-Davis and triggered the landmark case. Today, Dr. Chavis is a successful ob-gyn in central Los Angeles, serving a disadvantaged community and making a difference in the lives of scores of poor families." (In fact, Chavis's first name is Patrick, and he lived not in central LA, but in the suburb of Compton.)
Kennedy has not been the only one to make Chavis a poster boy for affirmative action.
Anti-Proposition 209 activists in California, like student radical-turned-politician Tom Hayden, and Connie Rice, counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, frequently cited Chavis during last year's volatile campaign.
Writing in The Nation, Hayden and Rice noted that while Allen Bakke became an anesthesiologist in Minnesota, Chavis was "providing primary care to poor women" in a mostly black community. "Bakke's scores were higher," they admitted, "but who made the most of his medical school education? From whom did California taxpayers benefit more?"
It's a question they may wish they hadn't asked.
Eight weeks ago, warning of Chavis's "inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician," the Medical Board of California suspended his license. An administrative law judge, Samuel Reyes, found Chavis guilty of gross negligence and incompetence in the treatment of three patients, one of whom died at his hands. Letting him "continue to engage in the practice of medicine" the judge ruled, "will endanger the public health, safety, and welfare."
But the legal language of the judge's interim order barely conveys the horror of what Chavis inflicted last year on Yolanda Mukhalian, Valerie Lawrence, and Tammaria Cotton.
On May 11, 1996, just days after Kennedy had been singing his praises, Chavis performed what was meant to be a simple liposuction on Mukhalian. (Though specializing in obstetrics, Chavis's practice increasingly focused on liposuction. His training in the procedure was a four-day course at the Liposuction Institute of Beverly Hills -- only half of which he completed.)
Mukhalian's surgery left her vomiting, sweating, and urinating helplessly as, in the court's words, "blood gushed down her pants leg." But rather than get her to a hospital, Chavis took her to his home. She lay there bleeding for 40 hours, during which Chavis provided virtually no supervision or medical care. She returned to his office on May 14, still bleeding and in pain. He prescribed heat packs and a massage. Two days later, she was worse -- still bleeding, in extreme pain, and growing delirious. He didn't return her calls. Nor did he examine her when she returned once more on May 17.
By June 8, Mukhalian was in St. Francis Hospital with a severe abdominal infection. She was badly scarred and had lost 70 percent of her blood. By some miracle, she survived.
A similar miracle must have saved Valerie Lawrence, whose story is almost identical to Mukhalian's: a botched liposuction, massive bleeding, shocking postoperative neglect.
Tammaria Cotton wasn't as lucky. When Chavis performed her liposuction on June 22, her blood pressure plummeted, and she complained of difficulty breathing. "If you can talk, you can breathe," Chavis reportedly told her. As her frightened husband watched, "reddish fluid" leaked from her body for hours, pooling on the floor. But instead of administering emergency treatment, Chavis vanished. By early evening, Cotton was in cardiac arrest. She died en route to the hospital.
This is Kennedy's "perfect example" of an affirmative action success.
By himself, Chavis isn't an argument against racial preferences. Single examples do not constitute data. He is, however, a reminder of something Kennedy and the others can't seem to grasp: Minority communities and poor families don't need black doctors. They need good doctors. And when universities admit medical students on grounds other than academic ability, they will turn out fewer doctors who are good.
In its 1978 Bakke decision, the Supreme Court approved the system that put Patrick Chavis in medical school: lower academic standards for most black students in exchange for racial "diversity." The result is that black students for 20 years have been failing the national medical boards -- the leading measure of medical school achievement -- far more often than their peers.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that while 88 percent of white students pass the exam, only 49 percent of black students do. The disparity is caused almost entirely by lower admissions standards: Minority students admitted without regard to race rarely fail.
The cost of medical affirmative action isn't theoretical. It is paid in human suffering -- sometimes in human lives. Maybe Kennedy and Hayden don't understand how. Tammaria Cotton's widower certainly does.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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