Could Reggie Lewis' Death Have Been Avoided?

ALAN GREENBERG

August 03, 1993|By ALAN GREENBERG

Most weeks, the sports pages are filled with uplifting stories about athletes who beat the medical odds. Injured or ill athletes who played when they were not expected to play again. Injured athletes who played when they were not even expected to walk again. Athletes who surpassed their delighted doctors' most optimistic prognoses.

But last week was not most weeks. Celtics captain Reggie Lewis, as fine a person as he was a basketball player, collapsed and died Tuesday while shooting baskets at Brandeis University, nearly three months after he had collapsed and revived during a Celtics-Hornets playoff game. He was 27.

Could his death have been prevented? Sadly, the answer seems to be yes.

Almost immediately after Mr. Lewis' collapse April 29, a team of a dozen eminent heart specialists assembled at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, where he was a patient, to examine Mr. Lewis' test results. They agreed Mr. Lewis had a very serious and life-threatening heart defect. They believed it was extremely risky for him to attempt to resume his NBA career.

Mr. Lewis, like any patient, frightened and desperate to hear some good news, abruptly left the hospital to seek another opinion. He got it from Dr. Gilbert Mudge, director of clinical cardiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Mudge contradicted the other doctors' finding. He ran Mr. Lewis through his own battery of tests, and concluded that Mr. Lewis suffered from a mild fainting condition, not a serious heart ailment. Dr. Mudge said if Mr. Lewis was placed on medication, he'd be fine. He said there was no reason Mr. Lewis couldn't resume his career.

Just like that, Reggie was happy. The Celtics were happy. That was in public. But what were their private thoughts? How could they so easily embrace the opinion of one doctor and ignore the advice of a dozen others?

The Celtics are a beloved team to their fans, but they also are big business. To think of it in cold business terms, Reggie Lewis was far and away their most valued product. When you run a business, you do everything possible to avoid pulling your most valued product, your biggest moneymaker, off the shelf.

And at the same time, a business tries to avoid being the target of a lawsuit. When Mr. Lewis abruptly checked out of New England Baptist under cover of darkness and put himself in Dr. Mudge's care, the Celtics felt he was removing himself from the supervision of their medical staff. From then on, they allowed Mr. Lewis and Dr. Mudge to make all the medical decisions. Short of ruining their own prospects for the 1993-94 season by telling their best player that they didn't want him anymore, the Celtics seemed to be doing what they could to shield themselves from liability, should a tragedy occur.

His public persona was all smiles, but privately, Mr. Lewis must have been having severe doubts about his health. If he didn't, why had he only shown up to watch, rather than to play at, the Celtics' rookie-free agent camp two weeks ago? His agent, Peter Roisman, said Reggie was ''struggling internally.'' Clearly, Reggie was scared. With good reason.

On July 12, while Mr. Lewis sat on the Celtics bench playing with his 11-month-old son instead of scrimmaging, Dr. Mudge said, ''We're not backing off from anything. I would not change one word. He is progressing along perfectly and he is right where he should be. When he starts playing, we suspect he will be fine. From my point of view, he could not be better.''

Less than two hours before Mr. Lewis collapsed and died Tuesday, Dr. Mudge told a Boston Globe reporter, ''Reggie is doing fine.''

And how was Reggie being monitored? Dr. Mudge said he was monitoring Reggie by their having regular conversations.

That's not the type of monitoring other doctors had suggested. They had recommended that Mr. Lewis wear a heart monitor, to detect any irregularity in his heartbeat or increase in his heart rate under stress. As best can be determined, Mr. Lewis was not wearing a monitor when he collapsed and died.

A playground basketball player who last week suffered an incident similar to what happened to Mr. Lewis in the playoffs -- and who failed the same heart test Mr. Lewis did -- is in a Spokane, Wash., hospital after having been fitted with a pacemaker. His basketball-playing days are over, but at least he is alive.

Doctors who consulted about Mr. Lewis' condition before Dr. Mudge took over his care, said one way to treat Reggie's heart was to implant a defibrillating device that would have electrically shocked his heart back to a normal rhythm if it began to beat erratically.

An autopsy was conducted Wednesday but no cause of death was determined, pending further study.

This is not meant to point a steely finger at Dr. Mudge. No doubt his reputation as one of the best in his field is well-deserved. Doctors are mortals like the rest of us, and even the best of them make mistakes.

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