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Heart of the Matter
William Oscar Johnson
May 24, 1993
The on-court collapse of Boston's Reggie Lewis left his future in doubt, sparked a bitter battle among medical experts and raised questions about the role of team doctors
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May 24, 1993

Heart Of The Matter

The on-court collapse of Boston's Reggie Lewis left his future in doubt, sparked a bitter battle among medical experts and raised questions about the role of team doctors

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Maybe Scheller should not have been so surprised. Had he taken a comprehensive medical history from Lewis, he presumably would have been told about a similar instance of dizziness and disorientation during a game in Miami on March 24. Indeed, after the April 29 collapse in Boston, Lewis told another doctor that he had had dizzy spells no fewer than five or six times over the previous two months. Following the Charlotte game Lewis told the Globe's Jackie MacMullan. "I was scared. I started having flashbacks to that Hank Gathers thing."

He was referring to the death of the 23-year-old Loyola Marymount star during a game on March 4, 1990, in Los Angeles. Gathers had collapsed during a game for the first time in December 1989 and was later diagnosed as having cardiomyopathy, a treacherous condition that can cause violent arrhythmia and, ultimately, heart failure. Despite this diagnosis Gathers was able to continue playing basketball—and to keep his NBA hopes alive—with a medication called Inderal. Trouble was, a fully prescribed dose made him lethargic. The night he died. Gathers had taken a drastically reduced dosage in an effort to keep his energy up.

Questions arose then about the wisdom of sending Gathers back onto the basketball court with such a dire medical condition. Lewis and his doctors might yet face a similar life-or-death decision. Two days after collapsing he checked into New England Baptist, the hospital with which Scheller is affiliated, and began some procedures to test his heart. But this was not to be a routine, run-of-the-treadmill workup. After all, the patient was none other than the Celtics' brightest star, a hero felled during the NBA playoffs, when press coverage is at the peak of its intensity.

Partly because of this hyped-up atmosphere—and partly, perhaps, to defend themselves against any future court claims by Lewis of inadequate treatment—Scheller and the Celtics assembled 12 of the finest, most-renowned cardiologists from the local medical community, which is overrun with fine, renowned cardiologists. Scheller called the consultants on Lewis's case "the Dream Team of cardiology."

What happened next was no dream, however. After a couple of days of tests at Baptist, Lewis and his wife, Donna Harris-Lewis, left New England Baptist late on the night of May 2 and moved to Brigham and Women's to seek a second opinion. Late last week the couple explained in a radio talk-show interview over station WEEI, the Celtics' local broadcast outlet, that they had changed hospitals not because they had been given a devastating diagnosis by the Dream Team but because the superstar consultants had refused to confer with them in person about that diagnosis, leaving only Scheller to explain the bad news to them.

"We did request to speak with [the 12 cardiologists], and the request was denied," said Donna. "Dr. Scheller was wonderful in bringing those doctors together, but we couldn't meet with those doctors. As far as I'm concerned, they're invisible."

What wasn't invisible was Lewis's abrupt—and highly unorthodox—transfer from Baptist to Brigham. The move was facilitated by George Kaye, vice-president of human resources at Brigham. Donna had once worked for Kaye, and she called him earlier that night to relay the frustration and annoyance she and her husband felt at both the diagnosis and the attitude of the Dream Team doctors. Kaye responded by arriving at Baptist at 10:30 p.m. with a Brigham security van, replete with a uniformed guard and a police dog, to pick up Boston's most-publicized hospital patient.

What bothered the Baptist people about Lewis's leaving was not so much Kaye's aggressive attitude or his failure to give any advance notice of his intentions or his failure to show any identification; what bothered them was the fact that Kaye did not move Lewis to Brigham in an ambulance. Baptist spokesman James Rattray, who was at the hospital at the time of the walkout, told the Boston Herald, "What we would have liked to have seen was for [Lewis] to go down to Brigham by ambulance, hooked up [to heart monitors]. We gladly would have arranged that. There absolutely should have been a medical attendant with Reggie at all times. He was absolutely put in potential danger. It was unprofessional, unethical and unsafe. The way he was transferred did not take into account his medical condition."

Even with all the commotion, things might have calmed down if Scheller hadn't launched a media barrage. The next day he went on television and, without permission from Lewis, revealed that the 12 wise men had concurred in a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy, the same ailment that had killed Gathers. He said that Lewis suffered from ventricular tachycardia, "the most life-threatening arrhythmia," and that Lewis had "dodged a bullet" when he fainted in the Charlotte game. He held out little hope for Lewis's basketball future, declaring that there was a "strong probability" he could never play again.

Scheller then suggested that the Lewises had probably been in a "phase of denial" over the seriousness of Reggie's condition when they stalked out of Baptist. He also took the opportunity to congratulate himself and the Celtics for assembling the Dream Team. "It was like putting together 12 cardiologists with egos as big as the Atlantic Ocean and not always agreeing," Scheller said. "They came in on a Sunday afternoon (May 2) and put their egos aside, and they were going to solve this one problem. I don't think Reggie appreciated that. I hope he does in time come to realize the level of medical care he had at his access before he walked out on it."

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