Car crash surgeon's training programme stalls

1:08 pm on 12 December 2017

Plans by a US doctor who caused a fatal crash near Nelson in February to set up a surgeon training programme have been stalled by a lack of interest, he says.

American heart surgeon Kenneth Wolnak, whose careless driving resulted in the death of two men near Nelson in February, has been ordered to pay $165,000 in reparation.

Kenneth Wolnak admitted charges of careless driving resulting in the death of two men near Nelson in February. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Surgeon Kenneth Wolnak admitted charges of careless driving causing two deaths and a further four charges of causing injury after he did a U-turn on a highway that caused the three-car crash. Stephen Jayes, 41, and Kevin Whitburn, 69, died and four people - including Mr Wolnak's wife - were badly injured in the crash.

In sentencing in April, Mr Wolnak was ordered to pay $165,000 in emotional harm reparation to the families of the victims and survivors of the crash.

Of his own volition, he offered to set up the exchange programme as a show of support he and his wife got from New Zealand medical authorities after the crash. The exchange, between New Zealand and the United States, would be administered by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and run through Otago University School of Medicine.

It was later revealed that Mr Wolnak also offered to pay ACC for his medical bill, but his offer was rejected for legal reasons. ACC said it could not take money from any individual, regardless of whether the payment was voluntary.

The court heard that while Mr Wolnak accepted financial help would never reverse what happened, he hoped the programme would go some way towards helping others.

"He is setting up a fund which will be administered by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, to have an exchange programme for a trainee surgeon from Otago University and that will be in exchange with a teaching hospital in his area of the US," Mr Wolnak's lawyer Tony Bamford said.

He said the idea had received early support from Wolnak's associates, colleagues and friends.

Mr Wolnak, a heart surgeon with Mercyhealth in Janesville, Wisconsin, told RNZ today that while he had received a positive response from American universities there had been no commitment so far.

"We have made inquiries with several universities and while there's been a positive response, none are willing to commit fully."

Mr Wolnak said anything to do with academia was "glacially slow". He accepted that it was going to take longer to pull together and he had not dropped the idea.

"I think at the time in New Zealand ... I was a little 'euphoric' about thinking I was going to be able to get this going and I should have lowered my expectations around timing.

"It's clear now it was not going to happen within a year," Mr Wolnak said.

A Royal Australasian College of Surgeons spokesperson said approaches made to the Australia New Zealand Cardiothoracic Society and College of Surgeons contacts in New Zealand and Australia revealed there was no official arrangement at this stage.

Mr Wolnak said he remained committed to getting the fund established and the programme up and running.

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