Dr Patterson's magazine
article has sparked two military investigations
Photo: Random House
A magazine article written by BC
internist, novelist and ex-soldier Dr Kevin Patterson
has landed him in serious hot water with the Department
of National Defence (DND). The article describes in
graphic detail the death of a soldier he treated during
a recent stint in Afghanistan. The Army is now looking
into whether he breached doctor-patient confidentiality
and compromised their ongoing investigation into the
young soldier's death.
Dr Patterson's article "Talk to
me like my father" appeared in the July/August issue
of Mother Jones, a US political magazine. In
it, he describes his attempt to save Canadian reservist
Cpl Kevin Megeney of Stellarton, NS, who was shot in
the chest by "friendly fire" inside his own tent on
the NATO base in Kandahar on March 6.
If either or both of the two DND
investigations determine that Dr Patterson broke military
rules, he could face a Special General Court Martial
trial and, if found guilty, jail time.
One investigation, conducted by the Military Police,
will determine if he committed an offence by disclosing
classified information about Cpl Megeney's case.
Dr Patterson, a Canadian Forces
veteran who last November was lauded by the military
for helping to recruit nearly a dozen physicians from
Nanaimo General Hospital to work for the Army, was in
Afghanistan as a civilian physician for six weeks earlier
this year. He signed an Army security document that
bars him from publishing "classified or sensitive information"
"related to past, current or future operations."
Dr Kevin Patterson
explains why he wrote his article
"Talk to Me Like My Father,"
which appeared in the July/August issue of Mother
Jones, is an emotional, accurate and admiring
description of the ISAF troops in Afghanistan
and their sacrifices. The essay describes the
horror of war in strong language, but to understand
the extent of the ongoing sacrifice of the troops,
I believe that strong language is necessary. If
the public is to get a sense of the price being
paid on our behalf by these young men and women,
it is necessary to face with open eyes the grotesque
nature of war trauma. The recent disengagement
and fatigue of the public with these matters is
itself grotesque. Reasonable people may disagree
on the prospects for a durable solution in Afghanistan,
but no one could dispute that these young men
and women are there for us, and that it is our
duty to understand what it is they endure in order
to truly honour them for their courage--and in
order to make appropriate decisions about what
is to be done in the future.
Kevin Megeney's immediate
family was approached by Mother Jones magazine
prior to the publication of this piece, and his
mother's response was strikingly gracious. Nevertheless,
it must have been painful for anyone who loved
him to have read this. My intention was to honour
their son and brother. -- Dr Kevin Patterson sent
this email statement to NRM on August 10
The other investigation is being
conducted by the military's Health Services branch to
find out whether Dr Patterson committed any medical
ethics offences. Some of his colleagues have already
made up their minds.
"The one contact he had with that
patient was as a medical professional, not a reporter,"
says Colonel Ronald Brisebois, an Edmonton trauma surgeon
whose last tour of duty in Afghanistan overlapped with
Dr Patterson's in February; the two worked together
briefly. "To publish something like that -- where you
name him, you go into details and it's accessible for
the family to read his last moments -- is completely
If Dr Patterson had Cpl Megeney's
family's permission to release the information, Col
Brisebois says, "it would be perfectly fine." However,
Cpl Megeney's uncle told the Pictou County, NS, News
that the first the family heard of the article was a
letter from Mother Jones offering to send them
advance copies. (It's been reported elsewhere that Cpl
Megeney's mother, a nurse, was fine with Dr Patterson's
In an essay published online August 7, Mother Jones
editor Clara Jeffery defends the disclosure by saying
even an anonymous description would have made Cpl Megeney's
identity obvious because his death had already been
Dr Jeff Blackmer, director of the
CMA's Office of Ethics, identifies two ethical questions.
First, "once some details become public domain, does
a duty of patient confidentiality still exist?" he asks.
"It seems reasonable to say that some does exist." And
second, does patient confidentiality continue after
a patient's death? "That's not specifically addressed
by our Code of Ethics, and it's still controversial."
Dr Blackmer received a phone call
August 10 from Mother Jones asking for clarification
on the CMA's ethics guidelines on patient confidentiality.
He declined to elaborate on what he advised them.
The justification given for disclosure
by Dr Patterson in a statement sent by email to NRM
(see sidebar for full text) -- that it was in the interest
of the public good -- wouldn't meet the Code's "responsibilities
to society" section, says Dr Blackmer.
For more on Dr Patterson's incarnation
as acclaimed novelist, see our story "An all-consuming
passion," February 15, 2007. His next book, an anthology
of writing by soldiers in Afghanistan, appears this