Papers Filed in Reggie Lewis Cocaine Suit

Papers File in Reggie Lewis Cocaine Suit

 February 6, 1999

Legal papers filed yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court present strikingly contrasting views of the medical treatment given by Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge Jr. to Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis in the months before Lewis's fatal heart attack in July 1993. The documents also shed new light on the question of whether Lewis used cocaine during his lifetime and if the damage to his heart was cocaine-related. The papers, filed in connection with the malpractice suit brought against Mudge by Lewis's widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, focus in part on whether the cardiologist overlooked prior test results and medical opinions that indicated that Lewis had a life-threatening heart condition. The lawyers for Harris-Lewis alleged that Mudge failed to disseminate among his medical team at Brigham and Women's Hospital the findings of tests done on Lewis at New England Baptist Hospital days before. Mudge defended the medical treatment he provided Lewis.

Also, he alleged that both Reggie and Donna Harris-Lewis had repeatedly denied to him as well as the doctors at the Baptist who examined him that he had used cocaine. Donna Harris-Lewis in fact became agitated when Mudge first asked Reggie Lewis whether he had used cocaine in the past, stating, according to Mudge: "Drugs, drugs, that is all they ask about. Just because he is not [ Larry] Bird. Don't insult my husband, he is a professional world-class athlete. . . . They would never ask Larry about drugs. . . . Drugs, drugs, drugs. Why can't they think of anything else?" But in a written response to the plaintiff's questions filed yesterday, Mudge said that two weeks before his death Lewis had told him in a private conversation that he had used cocaine but had stopped. In addition, Mudge alleges that six weeks after Lewis's death, his widow told him over the phone that "Reggie's mother was a cocaine addict and Reggie had died of the poisons his mother gave him."

In response, lawyers for Mrs. Harris-Lewis denied that Lewis had used cocaine or other drugs and even if he had, it did not relieve Mudge of the responsibility of properly diagnosing that his heart was severely scarred and providing him adequate medical treatment. "Reggie Lewis came to Dr. Mudge with a serious medical [ condition] . Dr. Mudge refused to recognize this condition despite ample evidence and warnings of many prominent physicians. As a result, this 27-year-old husband and father of two infants was put in peril and allowed to die," according to a motion written by the lawyers for Harris-Lewis, Robert G. Harley and Bridget Asaro of New York. The malpractice case is scheduled to go to trial in May or June and with no settlement in sight the documents filed yesterday reflect each side's strategy. While a state medical tribunal found sufficient evidence for Harris-Lewis's case to proceed to trial in 1997, other malpractice lawyers say she faces a difficult hurdle of proving not that Mudge's diagnosis was wrong, but that the Celtics star could have survived even with the best medical advice.

 Lawyers for Harris-Lewis are seeking to show that Mudge made a "determined effort" to discount the unanimous opinion of the team of other cardiologists, who consulted on Lewis's condition at New England Baptist, that his heart was seriously damaged. Without citing any motivation for Mudge's actions, the lawyers for Harris-Lewis allege that Mudge misread or minimized the results of an echocardiogram done at the Baptist that showed that the left ventricle of Lewis's heart was seriously damaged. The lawyers for Mudge, meanwhile, are focusing on the allegation that Lewis used cocaine and that his hiding that fact from his doctors impeded Mudge from making a proper diagnosis. In addition, they contend that Mudge had given the Lewises privately a far more sober assessment of the condition of Lewis's heart than Mudge was saying publicly. Lewis, captain of the Celtics and their leading scorer, collapsed during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets at the Boston Garden on April 29, 1993.

Disenchanted with the treatment he was receiving at New England Baptist during the next few days, Lewis transferred to Brigham and Women's, where he remained under the care of Mudge and his medical team for nearly three months. On July 27, 1993, Lewis suffered a fatal heart attack while shooting baskets at Brandeis University in Waltham. His sudden death cast a pall over the region, saddening far more than Celtics fans. Lewis had become popular throughout the city for his community work, and his death shocked a community that prides itself on the superior medical care of its hospitals. According to the documents filed by his lawyers, Mudge was unaware that Lewis had resumed playing basketball before he suffered his fatal attack. Mudge believed that Lewis was restricting his exercise to stretching and light aerobics, but nothing that would break a sweat. Two weeks before, on July 12, Mudge received results of recently completed cardiac tests that had been done on Lewis in Los Angeles as part of a third medical opinion on his condition. Those tests showed that Lewis's heart condition had deteriorated seriously and Mudge agreed with the assessment of one of the cardiologists, Dr. J. Michael Criley of Los Angeles, that Lewis should not play basketball at all.

"We [ Mudge and Lewis] discussed the reports and the fact that there was no explanation for the change in Mr. Lewis's condition which we were seeing. I queried, 'Reggie, have you ever taken cocaine?' " Mudge said in his written responses to interrogatories given by the lawyers for Harris-Lewis. "I asked again have you ever taken cocaine and Mr. Lewis indicated he had. I responded, 'You have got to stop. Cocaine causes all this,' and at that point there was silence," Mudge wrote. With his responses, Mudge increased to five the number of people who have said they either used drugs with Lewis or were told that Lewis had used drugs. In August 1998, the Globe reported that, in separate depositions, a Northeastern acquaintance said he had used cocaine with Lewis 15 to 20 times. Northeastern athletic director Irwin Cohen said he had been informed by the team physician that Lewis had tested positive for cocaine, and a Celtics front office employee said he had smoked marijuana with Lewis on several occasions in 1988, 1989, and 1990. In March 1995, former Northeastern teammate Derrick Lewis told the Globe he had used cocaine with Lewis five or six times between 1985 and 1993.

In the papers filed by her lawyers, Harris-Lewis criticized Mudge for not realizing at the outset of his examination of Lewis that his heart was seriously damaged. After extensive tests on Lewis at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Mudge announced at a widely reported press conference on May 10, 1993, that the reason for the Celtics star's collapse during the game was not any serious heart defect. Instead, he said Lewis's collapse had been caused by a neurological condition that resulted in his heartbeat slowing down upon exertion instead of increasing. Lewis's condition could be treated with medication and he could be expected to return as a professional basketball player, Mudge said. However, lawyers for Harris-Lewis stated that Mudge's conclusion was based on apparently flawed decision-making, a willful attempt to play down the results of the tests and medical conclusions reached about Lewis's condition by the 12 cardiologists who examined him at the Baptist.

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