40 Year Anniversary of the Still Unexplained Death of Elias J. Menkes MD at New England Deaconess Hospital

By: Aliana B. E. von Richthofen – -May, 2021

Elli had stopped at the hospital, before returning home from February break looking happier than all week away from his patients. He had been hired the previous year, barely 31 years old, as co-director of Intensive Care and director of Respiratory Therapy at the New England Deaconess Hospital for his many accomplishments in medicine. A job, unbeknownst to him, zealously coveted by a more senior colleague and surgeon there, Peter B., who vowed to make his life miserable for it and proceeded to do so. The reason we had spent our vacation contemplating a job offer Elli had received from Merck Pharmaceuticals to head their research facility in Switzerland.

“You should have seen for yourself,” Elli said, still in the doorway of our apartment “when I arrived my patients looked like they were wilting. When I left, they were thriving like beautiful flowers in a garden.” Asked how he had managed this transformation so quickly he said: “I tried to imagine what caused each patient the most acute discomfort and how it could be alleviated immediately. No fancy new technology, just adding a pillow or blanket, or removing it, – holding a hand, stroking a cheek.” Elli lived to heal the sick, in fact the sickest. He worked at his research because he desperately wanted to find a cure for a hospital acquired pneumonia that killed his most fragile patients. But his calling was treating those patients. We both believed that his famed congeniality would eventually bring the combative surgeon around. But we were wrong.

Peter B., having been at the Deaconess longer, had support among the medical staff to fight the newcomer every step of the way, even up to demanding that stabilized patients be kept in the ICU to the detriment of the more gravely ill who had to wait for critical intervention lying in corridors. An unconscionable condition that finally caused Elli to write a cautionary letter to his superior. Several weeks later his research was destroyed, wiping out years of hard work and his hope for that imminent cure. There was talk of an “inside job” signaling a personal threat directed at him and we began reconsidering the job offer from Merck. But that was not to be.

The last time I saw Elli alive was on the most beautiful sunny Saturday morning of May 2, 1981 when I walked him to the elevator in our apartment building while our daughters aged 4 and 9 watched a show on TV. Elli had gone for Clinical Rounds, as customary on Saturdays, but didn’t return home. By midday I had called is beeper several times and by 2:00 pm I phoned a colleague whom he considered somewhat friendly. Peter M. arrived with his wife and 2 daughters to pick me up, leaving his family with our children. Hospital security accompanied us to Elli’s office, where I saw a figure resembling him slumped sideways in his chair. Dead, I was told, by suicide.

A hospital psychiatrist Paul H. at the site explained that Elli had been diagnosed with Leukemia and apparently chosen to kill himself rather than suffer the disease. Nothing of what I saw or heard made sense to me. Least of all that this look-alike figure was Elli, had contracted a deadly disease I knew nothing about and that he had killed himself without any indication of a Leukemia diagnosis in his medical records. A man devoted to saving lives!

A special two-man police unit serving the Deaconess was called several hours later in accordance with the hospital’s inside policy and recorded: “unexplained death.” Years later they testified that they had not heard the Leukemia story but of an alleged affair I supposedly had with a doctor at the hospital, that Elli was to have walked in on that morning. Obviously, they hadn’t believed it as they never called me to verify this grotesque lie, nor did they inquire who the affair doctor was, as they told me. The state medical examiner, George W. Katsas, notorious, for his indifference to accuracy and prone to corruption, obediently stated “suicide” on Elli’s death certificate while omitting essential data. Coincidence brought me together with two men who had worked for Deaconess Security and present May 2, 1981.

Both expressed relief to relate to me their observations that caused them to disbelieve the cause of Elli’s death to have been a suicide. One of them summoned by a nurse to Elli’s office to “officially record the time of opening his door, although it was apparent (to him) that she had to have been inside already, given her behavior.”

As suspect as was the reason and the mode of Elli’s alleged suicide, so were the ever-mounting questions. The file I went to pick up from the law office on a workman’s comp case I eventually filed and which was denied, missed crucial documents as well as the tape with testimonies by the two witnesses. Why was this evidence removed and who had it been given to? Elli’s adversary Peter B. up and left when the claim was filed, not only the job he was given literally over Elli’s dead body, but the hospital and Massachusetts altogether, after having lived here all his life. Why?

William Hogen, Homicide Investigator at the DA’s office, who reviewed Elli’s file told me: “Get an SOB lawyer.” But I had worn out my heart and shoes running from authority to authority. Another lawsuit was not what I wanted. I had children to raise and jobs to manage. In 2018 I wrote to DA Conley, begging him to investigate Elli’s death prior to leaving his post to give us closure but he never answered my letters. The white wall protecting hospital transgressions is particularly resistant here due to Massachusetts politics, as I learned. Nevertheless, I have written to Conley’s successor DA Rollins, appealing to her commitment to reform our criminal justice system and I am again waiting to hear whether she will finally investigate the facts of this 40-year conspiracy. To our family Elli’s death is acute, devastating and unexplained.

Copyright; Aliana B. E. von Richthofen, The Valley Patriot, 2021 ◊