When Benita Alexander, an award-winning producer from NBC was sent to document Dr. Paolo Macchiarini’s medical operations, she believed she was in the presence of a super surgeon, a revolutionary force in the world of science who had found the answer to a vast array of illnesses. But he fooled her. And, even worse, he fooled his patients, who grew more and more sick under his “careful watch.”
This is a story about a man so wicked in his ways, that he managed to convince everyone that he was a competent surgeon and doctor to many high-profile figures such as the Pope, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
And the more time Benita Alexander spent with him, the more infatuated she became. Blinded by love, the reporter believed every word of his. Today, she believes he must stand trial for all his crimes.
The first time NBC reporter Benita Alexander met with Paolo Macchiarini chills ran through her body. “He comes around the corner, he looks right at me and in that second something happened,” she recalled, “like there was some sort of electric spark.”
They sat across one another at the Mandarin Oriental’s bar in Boston. Interviewer and interviewee, two strangers who had come together to talk about medical revolutions and life-saving findings. Macchiarini, a world-renowned “super-surgeon,” was credited with medical miracles, and Alexander was there to report on it.
Dr. Macchiarini became famous for being the mastermind behind the world’s first synthetic organ transplant, which involved coating a deceased donor’s windpipe with the patient’s own stem cells. With the help of Macchiarini’s intervention, a young woman from Barcelona, Claudia Castillo, was able to recover from her debilitating condition and head back home in no time.
This was his first big success. Countless news reports declared it a miraculous medical breakthrough. They called it a lifesaver, a game-changer. However, that wasn’t really the case. Castillo suffered from severe complications afterward, but none of it was released to the press.
Following the surgery’s alleged success, NBC rushed to document this brilliant man’s work. And they sent Benita to do the job. The NBC producer was mesmerized by Paolo’s effortless charm and sharp intellect. Over quiet dinners, they discussed work, life, and death, getting into the most intimate details in no time.
Macchiarini spoke of his wife, Emanuela Pecchia, whom he was in the process of divorcing. And Benita spoke of her former husband, who was dying from brain cancer at the time. When the topic was brought up during their conversations, Macchiarini knew exactly what to say to comfort her. “He gave me really sage, solid, kind advice,” Benita told ABC.
Macchiarini became so intertwined with the reporter’s life that when Benita’s ex-husband died, he drove her along the Illinois River on the back of his motorcycle to help her find a place where she could memorialize him.
As she grasped him from behind, wind in her hair, tears in her eyes, and a longing in her heart, Benita was flooded with emotions. She was grateful to have Macchiarini by her side in such a heartbreaking moment.
On that day, Benita admitted, she finally came to terms with reality. It was obvious that the two weren’t in a proper journalist-source relationship anymore. They were in love.
You can hardly blame Benita for falling in love with Paolo. Even his co-workers at the hospital were completely enamored by him. “He’s a brilliant scientist and a great technical surgeon,” said Dr. Richard Pearl, who worked alongside Macchiarini in Illinois.
Pearl praised his colleague, describing him as a competent Renaissance man, fluent in six languages and capable of tackling whatever drawbacks came his way. Another source, who got to know the doctor through Benita, described Macchiarini as “the most interesting man in the world.”
Macchiarini was interesting all right. But for all the wrong reasons.
When the prestigious medical university, Karolinska Institutet, first hired Macchiarini to work on his stem cell research, they believed they were hiring a man capable of curing a vast array of illnesses. And for a while there, the results he brought in confirmed their beliefs.
He seemed to be curing his patients one by one. Macchiarini was so confident in his work that he would invite other cardiothoracic surgeons into the operation room to watch the all-day surgery from beginning to end.
But wrapping up a surgery is only the beginning. It’s what comes afterwards that shows whether the procedure was beneficial. Unfortunately, Macchiarini’s patients suffered gravely in the months after seeing him.
Of the nine patients who went under the careless knife of Macchiarini, only two survived. When they first left the hospital, the doctor described them as having an “almost normal airway,” free of infection. But that “normal airway” slowly degraded into a sickly, inflamed organ that took their lives.
Incredibly, despite all the warning signs and precarious results, Dr. Macchiarini was granted more and more money to further his research and was even on the verge of operating on close to 100 patients for an international clinical study (thankfully, he didn’t).
In the midst of all of Macchiarini’s dubious affairs, lay Benita Alexander. Hopelessly hooked on him, her brain was flooded with hormones, coloring her day in bright colors that blinded her from the ugly truth—that Dr. Macchiarini wasn’t the man he claimed to be.
The doctor swept her off her feet to romantic trips in Italy, where they dined on gourmet food, spent the afternoons shopping, and hopped from island to island on a private boat. “He always paid for everything … gifts, expensive dinners, flowers—the works,” she recalled, “When it came to money, he was incredibly generous.”
Benita wasn’t a newbie in her field. She knew very well that the number one rule in journalism is to avoid conflicts of interest and that she was in no way supposed to be off in Italy riding a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs with her case subject.
Neither was she supposed to be attaching love locks to the Ponte dell ’Accademia bridge. But she was. “I knew that I was crossing the line in the sense that it’s a basic and well-understood rule of journalism that you don’t become involved with one of the subjects of your story because your objectivity could clearly become compromised,” Benita noted.
Her objectivity was 100% compromised. Which was terribly dangerous because her job was to document his medical achievements—“achievements” that ended up killing people.
While Benita tried her best to separate business and pleasure, having to document his surgeries and follow him around the world made it impossible for her to do so. Two weeks after their romantic getaway in Italy, she met him again in Stockholm, where he operated a young Turkish woman named Yesim Cetir.
Cetir’s story is especially tragic. She was hospitalized for an unrelated issue, hand sweating, but ended up with a damaged trachea and sought help from Dr. Miracle, Macchiarini. His operation left her in a worse state than before. Her airways were producing so much mucus that Macchiarini had to implant a new trachea. But that did little to help. She kept on deteriorating until, finally, her body gave way and she died.
Macchiarini’s negligence was costing people their lives. Yet apart from a few careful doctors who were skeptical about his operations, no one dared question his credibility. Tragically, he was allowed to carry out a new transplant, this time, on a child–a two-year-old Korean Canadian girl named Hannah Warren.
Less than three months after the transplant, Hannah died. In response, Macchiarini’s assistant Richard Pearl explained that her anatomy was “much more challenging than we realized,” adding, “Scientifically, the operation itself worked. It was just a shame what happened. When you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t have a textbook.”
Back to the sordid love affair.
After several months of long nights spent together, Macchiarini told Benita that his divorce from Emanuela was finalized. That very night, he went down on one knee and proposed. With tears in her eyes, she said yes.
Never in her wildest dreams had Benita dreamed of someone as charming as Macchiarini. Her friend, Marian Fontana, recalled how in those days, “Her life suddenly went from very down to earth to this kind of glamorous, almost celebrity lifestyle… I was like, ‘What is happening to Benita?'”
A short while after proposing, Macchiarini left the States, telling his fiancée that he had a “really important operation” to perform. He spoke of some really high-powered clients. “He told me that there was this kind of clandestine network of doctors who are on call for these people,” Benita explained.
Among these people were the Obamas, the Clintons, Pope Francis, and even Emperor Akihito of Japan. One of Benita’s colleagues at NBC, Alisha Cowan-Vieira, recalled seeing some of her texts with Paolo. “[Benita] would say ‘OMG, look what he just told me.’ And the texts would say, ‘I just left a meeting with PF [Pope Francis]’ or with Bill Clinton or the Obamas.”
Macchiarini proudly told his wife to be that none other than the Pope would be marrying them. Now don’t take Benita for a fool. She had no reason to distrust Paolo’s word. She even read a recommendation letter written by doctors who had operated alongside Paolo on several occasions, confirming his relation to the pope.
It read: “When Pope John Paul II was dying and having trouble breathing from advanced Parkinson’s Disease, Professor Macchiarini was called in to provide an urgent consultation for the pontiff.”
Alexander had no reason to doubt that Macchiarini was really Pope Francis’ personal doctor.
Besides bragging about bringing in the Pope, Dr. Macchiarini also told her among the list of V.I.P. guests were Russia’s Vladimir Putin, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. and Mrs. Obama, the Clintons, Russell Crowe, Elton John, John Legend and Kenny Rogers.
Macchiarini also told her that opera singer Andrea Bocelli would be singing and that John Legend would be accompanying the ceremony with his beautiful piano playing.
“From that moment on, it felt like my head was spinning,” Benita said, “and it didn’t stop spinning.”
The date for the wedding was finally set for July 11, 2015. Location—Rome.
Benita Alexander had clearly crossed a line by getting involved with her interviewee. But now that they were getting married, she knew she had to let her colleagues know before anyone else did. Reluctant and wary, she sat down for lunch one day with her supervisor, Meredith Vieira, and gave her the news.
However, she didn’t tell the whole truth. Whereas she and Paolo fell in love during production, she assured her supervisor that their story had begun once filming wrapped up.
Vieira was, to say the least, taken aback. “I perfectly understand her reaction,” Benita said.
Two months before the wedding, on May 13th, Benita Alexander left her job at NBC. She was preparing herself for a whole new life far off in Europe. A life of romance, sunny Barcelona siestas, wine on the balcony under a full moon… It was all coming together.
But the very next day, May 14, she received an e-mail from a friend that shattered her world to pieces. The e-mail’s subject read: “The Pope,” and in it was an article discussing Pope Francis’ plans to visit South America in July, the very same month he was supposed to officiating their wedding.
The words of the article all blurred into one. She became anxious, sweaty, and impatient. Benita needed answers, and she needed them now. She confronted Macchiarini, who told her that it was likely nothing more than a mix-up. He told her he would fly to Rome to settle things.
Hesitantly, she took his word for it. “I just didn’t want to put two and two together,” Benita explained; “I didn’t want Paolo to not be the man I believed him to be. I didn’t want the fairy tale to end.”
But wishful thinking could only take her so far, and one by one, Macchiarini’s web of lies began unraveling right before her very eyes.
After the initial shock, Alexander managed to sober up a bit, and she began planning out her next steps. “I made a very strategic decision to start playing a cat-and-mouse game, basically,” she said; “I wanted to get all the information that I could… before I really confronted him.”
She hired private investigators in Italy and the U.S. and found out that not only had he never been the pope’s personal doctor, but neither the Clintons nor the Obamas had ever met with him. None of what Macchiarini had told her was true.
In a matter of a few weeks, Alexander’s reality shifted from a happy-go-lucky Disney romance to a gray, surreal, sickening tragedy. She sent e-mails to all the hundreds of guests from 17 different countries, telling them that the wedding was canceled. Many of the guests had already bought flight tickets, booked hotel rooms, and purchased new outfits for what was expected to be the wedding of the decade.
Humiliated and broken, Alexander wrote Macchiarini an e-mail: “I believed you were exactly who you presented yourself to be, to me, to my friends and family, to the world. Congratulations. You charmed me, and all of us, into la la land. I will never, ever understand how you could have done this to me, or to Jessie. Who the hell are you and what the hell is wrong with you?”
The cherry on top of all of Macchiarini’s shameful lies was the fact that he hadn’t really divorced his wife of 30 years, Emanuela Pecchia. Not only that, but he had a second woman and two little kids waiting for him in Barcelona.
Everything was a lie. Even the ring Paolo gave her. The “$100,000” diamond was, in fact, worth no more than $1,000. Alexander tossed it into the river.
The last time she ever spoke with Macchiarini was through the phone, and all he said was, “I’m sorry for everything.” There was zero empathy in his voice.
On what was supposed to be their wedding day, Benita flew to Rome to meet with guests who hadn’t canceled their travel plans. And after several days, she and two of her friends, Nancy Cumba-Johnson and Leigh McKenzie, headed to Macchiarini’s house in Barcelona, Spain.
They parked near his home to find him with a woman and two kids. “I was angry as hell…” she recalled; “The woman in Barcelona was not his wife.” Benita’s friends stepped out of the car and approached him with a bottle of wine, and in front of the other woman, said they were sorry that things with Alexander didn’t turn out as planned.
“When he looked down, his eyeballs were moving superfast,” Cumba-Johnson recalled. “He was like an embarrassed schoolboy who had been caught,” McKenzie added.
If Macchiarini had lied to her about practically everything, surely, he had misled people in his professional life too, Alexander thought to herself. In an instant, a wave of worry and suspicion took over her, and she recalled the many issues that came up in his work while she was documenting his operations for NBC.
“As furious as it makes me to think of what he did to me, the thought that this is a man who has people’s lives in his hands. This is a surgeon…. People could be dying because of this man, and therefore, I couldn’t stay silent, I couldn’t crawl under the covers…. I had to expose him,” she explained.
When Alexander was asked why she had never questioned his sincerity, she replied, “This was not some guy I picked up in a bar. This was a renowned, accomplished, established surgeon whom we had followed all over the world.”
She added, “The very prospect of him making all of this stuff up, even as I described it to friends as surreal and overwhelming, seemed too ridiculous to give it any credence. Why would he risk his reputation by doing that? What reason could he possibly have to lie to me, someone he obviously loved, in that manner?”
From an early age, we’re taught that when something is too good to be true, it’s probably is. Yet when something “too good” happens to us, we ignore the signals. We do whatever mental exercise we need to fit that good into our lives.
Our critical judgments are put on hold. The world suddenly has tremendous potential, and people are the most benevolent creatures on earth who want nothing but good for us. In Benita’s case, falling in love with such a respected man as Dr. Macchiarini blinded her from every little warning that popped up occasionally.
In September 2020, charges against Macchiarini for aggravated assault in connection to several of his surgeries were filed. He denied all the charges, claiming that the procedures he had performed at the Karolinska University Hospital were done in good will. Hearings will begin in 2022.
“I want him to go to trial, “Benita stated; “I want him to look around that courtroom and see the families of the patients whose lives he destroyed, and see my face and at last be forced for whatever few seconds… to look us all in the eye and maybe understand what he did.”
“Leap of Faith,” the documentary that tied Benita to Macchiarini in the first place, was widely praised and nominated for an Emmy. The reason why it came out so good and detailed and impressive was, in part, because of how involved and in love she was while working on it.
When she discovered that her work had been nominated for an Emmy, she stated, “Of all of the things I’ve worked on that should have been nominated,” she said in amazement, “it had to be this one. I wanted to vomit.”
As heartbroken as Benita was when she discovered the news, she couldn’t allow herself to drown. She had to keep her head above water, for the sake of her daughter and for the sake of all the patients who suffered from his abuse of power and carelessness.
”As much as I wanted to crawl under the covers and hide and stay there, I knew I couldn’t fall apart,” she explained. “I couldn’t fall apart because I am a single mother with a daughter who needs me. I couldn’t fall apart because if he’s lying to me like this, there’s no way he’s not lying in his medical and professional life.”
Throughout Machirania’s career, a few of his co-workers had spoken up about their suspicions, yet most of the time, they were ignored or, even worse, reprimanded for it. Machiarinia’s workplace, the Karolinska Institue, tried shushing his medical failures to save their reputation.
In 2017, president of the Karolinska Institue, Ole Petter Ottersen, commented, “It is obvious that KI’s initial handling of this case was insufficient and inadequate on several points. It has led to extensive reform work internally at KI in order to improve and clarify a number of regulations and routines.”