Doctors link cocaine use to Lewis' death, report says

March 10, 1995|By This article was compiled by Sun staff writer Frank D. Roylance, with reporting by staff writers Diana Sugg, Mike Preston and Ken Rosenthal and contributing writer Ian Browne.

Doctors who examined the late Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis say they believed his heart quite likely was damaged by cocaine before the former Dunbar High basketball star collapsed and died of heart failure near Boston in 1993.

A report in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, however, said the doctors kept silent about their suspicions under influence from the Celtics and Mr. Lewis' family, who stood to lose millions of dollars if his illness was linked to drugs.

The newspaper's report offered no proof of cocaine abuse. But it said the official cause of Mr. Lewis' death -- heart damage because of a viral infection -- has been rejected by cardiologists who examined him after a fainting spell during a game months before his death or later after his death.

Dr. Jeffrey Isner, a Boston cardiologist who assisted with Mr. Lewis' autopsy, called the conclusion of the Massachusetts state medical examiner's office "wildly improbable."

But two top heart experts in Baltimore disagreed. They said it was not only possible that a common cold virus known as adenovirus 2 caused the heart damage, but also that it was a logical conclusion.

"It's thought to be the most common cause of unexplained heart damage in young, otherwise healthy people. A lot of people get exposed to it, and it's unusual for it to attack the heart muscle, but it can happen," said Dr. Michael Gold, director of cardiac electrophysiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Dr. Kenneth Baughman, professor of medicine and chairman of the division of cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said viruses commonly cause this type of heart damage in young people.

"I have many, many examples of patients like that who had a relatively sudden onset of a viral inflammation of the heart and went on to have either sudden death or sudden heart trouble," said Dr. Baughman.

In addition, there is a history of heart trouble in Mr. Lewis' family. One of his two brothers was born with a hole in his heart and underwent open-heart surgery at age 4. His mother, Inez "Peggy" Ritch, has had two heart attacks -- the first when she was 17 and the other in 1990, after she had been a cocaine addict for about seven years.

In addition, Mr. Lewis was born with a heart murmur, which

apparently went away when he was 12.

The Journal article also asserts that:

* Medical evidence uncovered after Mr. Lewis' fainting spell in April 1993 quickly led a team of a dozen noted specialists to a diagnosis of heart scarring, and they strongly suspected it was caused by cocaine. Mr. Lewis denied using drugs, but refused to allow his blood or urine to be tested. He soon left to seek care at another hospital.

* Mr. Lewis' new doctors concluded that his problem was a benign fainting condition, requiring only tests and close monitoring. The intense debate among his doctors over the cause of his heart damage and the possible role of cocaine never became public.

* The Celtics told Mr. Lewis' doctors -- incorrectly -- that National Basketball Association rules prevented them from forcing Mr. Lewis to submit to drug tests -- tests that, if positive, would have allowed him to seek life-saving medical help, but also might have forced an end to a career that was lucrative to Mr. Lewis and the team.

* The Celtics at the time were deeply in debt and in the midst of negotiations to sell a television station. They faced a public relations nightmare. The team stood to lose millions of dollars if Mr. Lewis were unable to play basketball because of drug abuse. A $15 million insurance policy on his contract would not pay off if his disability was linked to drugs.

Journal criticized

At a Boston news conference yesterday, the team's majority stockholder, Paul Gaston, criticized the Journal for suggesting in the Page 1 article that the team sought, for financial reasons, to cover up suspicions that drug use lay behind Mr. Lewis' illness, thereby undermining his care.

"Any allegation that economic or monetary concerns could have conceivably played a role in any care that Reggie Lewis got are absolutely ludicrous," he said. "They are worse than ludicrous. .. They are shameful and disgusting.

"To me, this was an example of gutless journalism, yellow journalism -- based fully on a complete disregard for the truth. We intend to sue the reporter, Ron Suskind, the Wall Street Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones and Company Inc., for $100 million. Any and all proceeds will go to the Reggie Lewis Foundation."

L He charged further that the article was motivated by racism.

"It's something that people don't like to bring up," Mr. Gaston said. "But it just burns in the back of people's minds, when a black athlete dies, they don't believe that it is not either guns or drugs. I firmly believe that this is certainly a part of this article."

The Celtics plan to retire Mr. Lewis' uniform number during halftime of a game on March 22, a ceremony the club says will go on as scheduled.

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