Lives Lost: A doctor dubbed Turkey’s medical ‘Robin Hood’

This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.

By Suzan Fraser Originally published on 17 Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Dr. Murat Dilmener sometimes bent hospital rules in Istanbul to ensure patients without health insurance got the treatment they needed. He frequently saw poor Turks for free at his private clinic and persuaded more affluent ones to sponsor medical student scholarships.

His charity and compassion would inspire Turkish newspapers to dub Dilmener the “Robin Hood of the medical profession” and earn the professor and practicing physician the admiration of thousands of patients and students. But they also landed him in trouble.

Dilmener died of COVID-19 on May 3. His family thinks the 78-year-old infectious diseases specialist acquired the coronavirus tending to another one of the patients he couldn’t turn away. The team that treated him included former students who were devastated they could not save his life.

“He was at the frontline of the fight against infections, but he succumbed to an infection,” said Dr. Haluk Eraksoy, Dilmener’s former assistant and the current head of infectious diseases at the hospital where his late mentor had worked. “This was very unsettling for us.”

Following in Robin Hood’s footsteps with a stethoscope instead of a bow and arrow wasn’t easy.

In 2004, Dilmener and other doctors were investigated for allegedly causing the Istanbul Medical Faculty Hospital financial losses by unlawfully treating patients who had neither social security coverage nor certificates proving destitution that were required at the time.

Dilmener was ordered to pay 500,000 lira (equivalent to $73,000 today) in restitution – a colossal amount for a Turkish family at the time. The case dragged on for a decade before an appeals court eventually ruled in his favor.

A 2006 article in Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper quoted Dilmener as saying the patients at issue “were in such a hopeless situation that we treated some of them for free, in line with our Hippocratic Oaths.”

It was a stressful time for his family. The youngest of his three children, son Caner Dilmener, 32, recalls asking his mother how they would manage to pay the hospital. His father, a quiet man of few words, remained calm.

In this family photo provided by Dr. Caner Dilmener, Dr. Murat Dilmener, seated left, a professor of infectious diseases in Istanbul is pictured with his wife Lale Dilmener, right, and his son Dr. Caner Dilmener, center, during a Christmas lunch at Buyuk Klup (Cercle d’Orient), Dec. 25, 2014, in Istanbul. (Courtesy of Caner Dilmener via AP)

Dilmener was convinced he was in the right and defended himself at court hearings. If anything, he was annoyed the restitution case took up precious time he could “effectively” use treating patients, Caner said.

Years later, Dilmener would feel vindicated when Turkey overhauled its health care system to provide the universal access and health coverage he’d strongly championed.

Dilmener retired from hospital work in 2008 but continued to treat patients at his clinic. His family thinks he was infected with the coronavirus on March 16, a day when he hadn’t planned to go to the clinic but did because his assistant told him three patients made appointments.

One of those patients displayed COVID-19 symptoms. After Dilmener was hospitalized, his son and wife of nearly 48 years, Lale, tested positive for the coronavirus. They recovered, while Dilmener spent 36 days on a ventilator and died.

“He didn’t reject any patients during his life,” Caner said. “You cannot find any single person who could talk any negative word about my dad. His students loved him. His patients adored him. His family loved him dearly.”

Dilmener was born in 1941 in Mardin, near Turkey’s southern border with Syria. He was a member of the tiny Christian, Syriac community, whose ancestral home stretches over parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. He and Lale, a Syriac from Aleppo, met in 1969 at the funeral of the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Mardin.

Dilmener remained committed to his community and visited Mardin frequently despite a fear of flying. He saw fellow Syriac Christians at a temporary clinic he set up in his family’s villa overlooking the plains of Mesopotamia.