By stopping at 2 opinions, Lewis may be stopping short of truth

KEN ROSENTHAL

May 13, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If I'm Reggie Lewis, I get a third opinion, and a fourth, and a fifth. I charter a plane, visit every heart specialist in the land, then decide whether to resume my basketball career.

But Reggie Lewis isn't going to do that.

No, Reggie Lewis got the diagnosis he wanted -- the one that will enable him to continue playing in the NBA. Maybe this second team of medical experts is right, maybe not. But rarely are two sets of opinions so far apart.

The first set of doctors -- the "Dream Team" of 12 cardiologists assembled by the Boston Celtics -- said the former Dunbar High star was suffering from a life-threatening heart condition.

The second set -- an equally formidable team of cardiologists at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital -- said Lewis is suffering from a less serious nerve disorder that can be treated with medication.

One minute, Reggie can't play, the next minute, he can. The average person, with a life at stake, would ask, "What's going on here?" The professional athlete, convinced of his immortality, proceeds merrily along.

No one can blame Lewis for wanting to resume his career. He's only 27, and if he returns, he'll be a hero like never before. But what happens if the first set of doctors was right? Who's to blame if he collapses again next season?

Lewis needs to think about that.

So do the Celtics.

Publicly, they profess to be delighted with the new and improved diagnosis -- even though it contradicts the findings of their own doctors, even though it places them in an awkward position with their star player.

Privately, their lawyers no doubt are scrambling to ensure that the team is protected if tragedy strikes. That, apparently, is the only lesson gained from the death of Hank Gathers. The greater lesson -- the one concerning caution -- is being ignored.

Gathers, the former Loyola Marymount star, died on the court from the condition described in Lewis' original diagnosis. His family sued the school for $32.5 million, and won a $545,000 settlement. Yet, if Gathers hadn't stopped taking his heart medication, he might be alive today.

Lewis seemed mindful of the Gathers nightmare in the early days of this confusing, twisting saga. Now, it's as if the whole thing never happened. Forget about Hank. Forget that original diagnosis. Lace 'em up. Play ball.

Remember when Celtics team doctor Arnold Scheller said Lewis was in "denial" when he sought a second opinion? That judgment was overly harsh, but probably on the mark. Lewis, bTC quite naturally, didn't want to believe that his career was over. He wanted someone to tell him everything was all right.

It matters little whether his wife pushed him after getting snubbed by the first set of doctors, a trivial piece of gossip in such a serious matter. Lewis did the only logical thing. He went through another battery of tests, at a hospital noted for cardiac care.

Guess what?

That only confused the issue further.

The revised diagnosis states that Lewis suffers from a reflex in which the heart rate falls instead of increasing during peak exercise. Little is known about this disorder in the medical community. It has only come to light in the past several years.

One minute, we're talking about an ailment that is potentially fatal. The next minute, we're talking about this relatively benign disorder that can result in dizziness, lightheadedness and -- on occasion -- fainting.

If Lewis sought the second opinion because he was dissatisfied with the first, how can he be satisfied now? Dr. Mark Josephson, one of the original 12 doctors, said, "It's hard to have two things 180 degrees apart. There has to be a reason for that."

Maybe the answer is somewhere in between, maybe not. The question is certainly worth exploring, when two groups of medical experts offer such dramatically different interpretations on the same subject.

The original diagnosis led to speculation that Lewis would undergo immediate heart surgery. The new and improved diagnosis says Lewis is merely getting his signals crossed in his nervous system.

The original diagnosis indicated his career with the Celtics was over. The new and improved diagnosis says he should "be able to return to professional basketball without limitation."

"I'm just glad it's finally come to an end," Lewis said the other day, but his quest for the truth should only be beginning.

If I'm Reggie Lewis, I want to play.

But, first and foremost, I want to live.

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