On 25 August 1983, 46-year-old Navy veteran Joseph Branda was in the operating theatre at Walson Army Hospital at the Fort Dix base in New Jersey to have a tumor removed from his bladder. The anesthesiologist in the operating room that day was a man who had worked at the hospital for almost six months and whose responsibility it was to ensure his patient was appropriately sedated while monitoring his vital signs throughout the surgery.
That man was 47-year-old Abraham Asante who had lied on his application form to obtain his position within the hospital. Not only was Asante not a qualified anesthesiologist, he had never undergone medical training or obtained a medical degree. Abraham Asante was not a doctor, he was an impostor who had fooled his employers, superiors, and peers and now his fraud and inexperience were to cost an innocent military veteran the rest of his life.
Abraham Asante was originally from Ghana and had come to the United States in the early 1970’s. Two years before he would achieve American citizenship in 1976, his false applications for intern positions at hospitals in New York and Manhattan were flagged as submitted by an individual who did not have the credentials he claimed.
Asante had written he had obtained a medical degree from the Charles University in Czechoslovakia, but when officials contacted the University they discovered no one had heard of Abraham Asante. He wrote he had a medical licence to practice in both Connecticut and Indiana when in fact he had no licence to practice in any state in America. In 1974 he did not get the intern positions he applied for and the Educational Council for Foreign Medical Graduates in Philadelphia ensured officials and professional groups were warned about his attempts and his fraudulent status. These warnings, however, did not spread far enough and through moving from state to state and across different hospitals, Abraham Asante did obtain numerous positions as a hospital doctor on the basis of lies and falsified documents.
By the time he secured the position at the Fort Dix Hospital, Asante had developed enough skills through observation and on the job training in his previous roles to be convincing. He had also grown in confidence. He had not been caught in nine years; he even had solid recommendations from previous colleagues who held him and his medical work in high regard. When his new employer requested copies of his medical degree and his licence to practice after he started the job he made excuses and discovered, as with previous hospitals, the requests for his documentation soon died down. No one suspected that Abraham Asante was not who he said he was and no one even considered he could be what is known as a medical impostor.
During the operation of Joseph Branda, the lead surgeon took a look at his patient’s head after being focused on the man’s abdomen and the delicate task of tumor removal. He found Joseph Branda’s face and neck blue from lack of oxygen and could not find a pulse. The electrocardiogram monitor which Abraham Asante was supposedly monitoring to keep the patient alive and safe during the surgery was not even plugged in. Joseph Branda’s heart had stopped for around 4 minutes with Abraham Asante not noticing. The emergency actions taken by that surgeon saved the patient’s life but could not bring him out of his unconscious state.
“This horrible example of a false doctor turning a man into a hopeless vegetable is proof that action is needed to prevent something like this from happening again.”
Abraham Astante’s fraud was discovered and he was arrested and charged with two counts of making false statements in his Army application form, two counts of illegally distributing narcotics and one count of aggravated assault. At the opening of his trial in the Federal District Court in Camden in March 1984, his defence team claimed Asante did not actually administer the drugs, this was a military nurse they said, but after mistakes were made the Army was blaming him, a ‘scapegoat’ his public defender John Hughes told the court, claiming his client was not criminally responsible ‘for this terrible tragedy’.
The prosecution said he had no qualifications as a doctor and was not licensed to practice. While at Fort Dix Hospital he acted as an anesthesiologist to a patient undergoing an operation and his mistakes caused permanent brain damage they said, exposing Asante as a fraud who had no right to be practicing medicine. The medical diploma he had shown the hospital from Czechoslovakia upon his employment was fake. Abraham Asante was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison and all hospitals he had obtained fraudulent medical positions in ordered to tighten their checks on new employees.
Medical impostors are by no means a new phenomenon. According to an article published in the South African Medical Journal, The Lancet, a renowned medical journal founded in 1823, stated in a published editorial in 1920;
“The medical profession is unfortunate in that it apparently offers more temptation than any other to fraudulent persons to pretend to be members of it with a view to victimising their fellows.”
In just this year in the United States there have been numerous cases of bogus doctors and medical impostors performing procedures on unsuspecting patients. In April 2017, Gustavo Felix Nunez pleaded guilty to 28 felony charges for performing liposuction in an industrial warehouse kitted out as a professional looking medical clinic, on women between 2012 and 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. Nunez did not have a medical licence and his ‘surgeries’ on these women had caused life-threatening damage to at least one patient who needed emergency treatment as a result.
While the actions of Abraham Asante in masquerading as a hospital doctor and managing to convince medical professionals around him he was indeed qualified and experienced would be much harder to achieve in today’s modern hospitals, medical fraud is a serious business making criminals a great deal of money and putting the lives of thousands of patients at risk.
Kaiser Health News reported on the increase in medical identity theft in 2014 and the damage this can cause to the reputations and careers of the qualified doctors who are targeted. Stealing the name and credentials of practicing doctors is a crime that has been seen across the United States, with one survey reporting that 43% of all identity thefts reported in the US in 2013 were medical related.
“Medical identity theft is a growing and dangerous crime that leaves its victims with little to no recourse for recovery.”
The case of Abraham Asante was unusual in the extent of his fraud and that he had been uncovered as a medical impostor in 1974, yet this information was not disseminated wide enough to put a stop to his dangerous actions. It is a case that shocked hospitals across the United States with the realization of the threat of medical impostors and only through correct, thorough and persistent checks of qualifications and licences can these selfish individuals be blocked from causing the kind of pain and permanent damage that Abraham Asante did to Joseph Branda and his family.