ST. PETERSBURG — The president-elect of the Pinellas County Medical Association stepped down Friday, apologizing profusely for forwarding an e-mail image that portrayed President Barack Obama as a witch doctor in a loin cloth and headdress with bones in his nose.
Dr. David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon, said he is taking a year's leave of absence from a leadership role at the American Medical Association. He also plans to take a lower public profile in the health care reform debate.
"That e-mail depicted such an offense image, and it was completely inappropriate for me to thoughtlessly forward it out," McKalip said. "A person in my position, who's trying to help patients and trying to do it in organized medicine, needs to think hard about the people he's going to hurt when he sends out images like that."
"That took a while to sink in," he added.
McKalip said he had forwarded the image, captioned "ObamaCare, coming soon to a clinic near you," to about 150 people. Several popular liberal blogs highlighted it on Thursday, where he was blasted for racism.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called for McKalip's resignation from leadership of the county medical association. Rouson said the doctor called him Friday morning and offered his "sincerest" apology.
"Let's hope that he learned that there are some insensitive things that we should not pass on," Rouson said. "It would have been better had he sent whoever sent it to him a response of outrage and an affront — and please don't send this kind of thing to me again — as opposed to making a choice to distribute it."
As word of McKalip's e-mail spread, leaders of prominent medical institutions distanced themselves from his actions.
In a statement, the Florida Medical Association said it found "the actions by Dr. McKalip to be hurtful and in poor judgment." McKalip said he remains on its board.
"The Pinellas County Medical Association regrets and is appalled by the statements and act of Dr. David McKalip," the group's board said in a statement, accepting his resignation. "Dr. McKalip acted in poor taste and on his own accord when preparing and issuing his message."
A vocal critic of Obama's health care reform proposals, McKalip initially was dismissive of the criticism, telling the Times that the e-mail was little different from the kind of gags often used on The Daily Show.
But on Thursday night, he issued a formal apology, working with a public relations firm that he has used previously to promote his practice.
He sounded more chagrined Friday, when he apologized publicly on a WMNF-FM 88.5 program.
In an interview with the Times, McKalip later acknowledged he was worried about the impact on his private medical practice. St. Petersburg is his home, he noted, and where he grew up.
McKalip hopes to focus on community service, building on past work in African-American youth development. He said he talked with Rouson's office about more efforts in this area.
"I provide valuable trauma services to the entire West Coast of Florida. There's a lot of people alive today because of the brain and spine surgeries I've done," he said, adding that he has been talking to medical colleagues. "They are supporting me, so I can continue to provide that sort of care to my patients."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.