Doctor had Lewis, family convinced he would be fine THE REGGIE LEWIS TRAGEDY: A YEAR LATER

September 11, 1994|By Ken Rosenthal and Mike Preston | Ken Rosenthal and Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff researcher Dee Lyons contributed to this article.

The mother of Reggie Lewis recalls the conversation vividly.

"I stake my reputation on this," Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge Jr. said.

It was the day before Mother's Day in 1993. Inez "Peggy" Ritch and several other of Lewis' relatives from Baltimore were visiting him at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Lewis seemed delighted with his latest diagnosis -- Mudge said he was suffering from a fainting condition, nothing more. Ritch recalls his riding a stationary bicycle in the hospital and joking about a TV report that said he would undergo surgery to receive a pacemaker.

Two and a half months later, the Boston Celtics' captain was dead.

Ritch says Lewis had the family convinced he would be fine, so confident was he in Mudge, the director of clinical cardiology at Brigham and Women's.

Mudge, too, radiated confidence.

"We all came there with gloomy expectations, but by the time he finished, we were laughing, joking," recalls Lewis' uncle, Russell Lewis. "We were very convinced."

Now, Ritch questions why Mudge was so adamant when his diagnosis contradicted the findings of the Celtics' "Dream Team" of 12 prominent Boston cardiologists.

She questions the motives of Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, in helping persuade Lewis to leave the Dream Team's care.

And she questions whether the Celtics knew of Lewis' condition before his collapse in an NBA playoff game.

"She's angry and bitter, and it's very understandable," says Dr. Mark Estes, a Dream Team cardiologist from New England Medical Center.

Indeed, Lewis' doctors still wonder if his death could have been prevented.

"If he had stuck with the original group of doctors, would he have been better off?" asks Dr. Roman DeSanctis, the chief of clinical cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and the only doctor who consulted both the Dream Team and Mudge.

"Everyone wonders that. But I don't think there's any way to say. The whole thing, from beginning to end, was a series of unfortunate circumstances, one after another."

Harris-Lewis declined to comment for this article. So did Mudge, who remains director of clinical cardiology at Brigham and Women's.

"I made a commitment to Reggie and to his wife that I would have absolutely no comment on anything," Mudge said. "I can't violate that."

The Boston Globe reported that Mudge received death threats after Lewis died, and for a time, was given police protection at his home.

"I don't think Mudge acted glibly," said Dr. Nicholas Diaco, director of the coronary care unit at Saint John's Heart Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., who headed a team of Los Angeles heart specialists whom Lewis consulted for a third opinion.

"I think he made a mistake in saying this was the absolute cause."

The Massachusetts medical examiner's report concluded that Lewis suffered from myocarditis, an inflammation that caused scarring and enlargement of the heart, placing him at high risk for the abnormal heart rhythm that triggered his death.

The report supported the original diagnosis of the Dream Team -- the diagnosis Lewis abandoned with his midnight departure from New England Baptist Hospital on May 3, 1993, four days after his collapse at Boston Garden.

"[Ritch] has to understand that he actively made the decision himself," Estes says. "To that extent, he bears some portion of the responsibility for the outcome."

The Globe reported that Lewis stormed out of New England Baptist without the hospital's consent, peeling heart monitors off his chest only hours after suffering a run of extra heartbeats so dangerous that doctors debated whether it was safe to move him out of his room for tests.

Ritch says the switch to Mudge at Brigham and Women's took place because Harris-Lewis developed "an attitude" after she and Lewis were excluded from the one and only meeting of the "Dream Team" doctors.

But Jon Ritch, Lewis' half-brother, says the Lewises were right to upset. "Reggie would have paid more attention to the Celtics if they came to him," Jon says. "They didn't. They wanted to have a big private meeting. They didn't include Reggie or Donna."

In a television interview last November, Harris-Lewis said her husband made the switch to Brigham and Women's because New England Baptist was primarily an orthopedic hospital. Lewis, in a radio interview shortly after the move, said he had been upset by questions regarding drug use.

The issue became one of control -- Lewis didn't want the Celtics deciding his future. The Dream Team doctors wanted him to receive an implantable defibrillator -- a device that shocks the heart back to normal when it beats too fast -- and stop playing basketball.

"To believe a diagnosis from physicians you've never seen is hard," Harris-Lewis said in the TV interview.

"We didn't need to speak to all 12 members of the Dream Team. But we needed to speak to at least three. Or two. Even one."

Also, it was natural that Harris-Lewis was more comfortable at Brigham and Women's, where she had worked in the human resources division.

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