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Killing Leaves Psychiatric Community at a Loss

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Killing Leaves Psychiatric Community at a Loss

Remembrances

Killing Leaves Psychiatric Community at a Loss

Killing Leaves Psychiatric Community at a Loss

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The national psychiatric community is stunned by the loss of Dr. Wayne Fenton, found beaten to death after seeing a patient. Fenton was a "doctor of last resort" for people with severe disorders. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, remembers his colleague.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Family, friends and colleagues mourned the death of Dr. Wayne Fenton this week. He was 53 years old, a research psychiatrist who specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of the most serious mental illnesses. Last Sunday Dr. Fenton was found beaten to death after a session with a 19-year-old patient. Fenton was associate director for Clinical Affairs at the National Institute of Mental Health. But evenings and weekends he saw private patients in his office, at their homes or halfway houses, many of them severely ill.

Dr. Thomas Insel is director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and he joins us from there to talk about Dr. Fenton.

Dr. Insel, welcome.

Dr. THOMAS INSEL (National Institute of Mental Health): Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Dr. Fenton had been at NIMH since 1999. Could you talk about what kind of a man he was, what sort of a role he played for his colleagues there?

Dr. INSEL: This was really a rather extraordinary person, somebody with many, many facets. But what was so important to us was that he bridged the worlds of research and practice. So he was the person who helped us to ensure that the research that we were funding would really make a difference for those with the greatest need. His interest was always in schizophrenia in particular, but other of the most serious mental illnesses, the ones that were the most disabling, he felt, that we should put most of our energy where the need was the greatest.

WERTHEIMER: Was it unusual for somebody like Dr. Fenton to see private patients?

Dr. INSEL: No. We have other people who do that. It's, I think, one of the ways in which we make sure that our research stays grounded in the needs of real practice. So not unusual but here what makes him a little unusual is his commitment to what we call public sector psychiatry - to seeing the patients who many other psychiatrists just wouldn't see. He was in many, many ways the doctor of last resort for patients and families who just couldn't find someone else who would be willing to take care of them.

WERTHEIMER: Is this dangerous work, this kind of thing?

Dr. INSEL: Well, you know a lot of people have asked about that. They wonder whether this was a high risk proposition and I think there is some risk. But its probably important for listeners to understand that in the case of these psychotic illnesses, when these people with schizophrenia and other illnesses are treated, they're actually more likely to be the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators. So this is pretty unusual.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Dr. Fenton, I understand in his free time, if he had any free time, was an accomplished blues guitarist? Is that right? Did you ever hear him play?

Dr. INSEL: Oh, I - no, I didn't have the pleasure of hearing him play, but this is a person who had lots of interests. I don't think he ever missed the Sundance Film Festival. When - since I was his supervisor, one thing that he had to get straight from the first day that I arrived was that he needed to have five days off every year to attend the Sundance Festival. So he had tremendous and very deep interests in film, a deep interest in the blues and in playing guitar. And he was somebody who was a very full person with a lot of sides and all of them were interesting.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Thomas Insel is director of the National Institute of Mental Health. He talked about his late colleague, research psychiatrist Dr. Wayne Fenton, who died last Sunday. Dr. Insel, thank you very much for doing this.

Dr. INSEL: Well, thank you for this tribute to Dr. Fenton. You know I think all of us stand in his debt.

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