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Ex-Celtic Lewis’ Death Is Disputed

May 4, 1999

BOSTON (AP) _ Six years after Boston Celtics captain Reggie Lewis dropped dead shooting baskets, his widow is in court fighting for his reputation _ and the millions he could have made had he lived past 27.

Donna Harris-Lewis’ malpractice suit, which began Monday before a jury, pits her husband’s reputation against those of some of the city’s most respected physicians.

Harris-Lewis contends the doctors misdiagnosed and mistreated her husband’s fatal heart arrhythmia. The doctors say Lewis used cocaine and lied about it, making an accurate diagnosis impossible.

Testimony was to continue today.

``If the proper treatment had been given, Reggie Lewis would be here today,″ plaintiff attorney Robert Harley said. ``In all likelihood, (he) would be playing for the Celtics.″

Harris-Lewis’ suit names Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who led the specialists, and Drs. Mark Creager and Peter Friedman, who were consultants.

A third consultant, Dr. John Rutherford, recently reached a settlement with Harris-Lewis, the terms of which have not been disclosed.

Harris-Lewis is suing to recover money Lewis would have made had he lived, estimates of which have ranged from $40 million to more than $100 million. Her attorneys contend Lewis could have continued playing by wearing a defibrillator or taking medication, or could have held other positions like broadcaster or product pitchman.

William Dailey Jr., Mudge’s attorney, said in his opening statement that Lewis lied to doctors about cocaine use until two weeks before he died, and the lack of full disclosure early in the treatment process made a proper diagnosis impossible.

``It would be the same as if I went in with a stomachache and never told my doctor I’d eaten a two-week-old meat loaf,″ Dailey said.

Harris-Lewis has adamantly denied her husband ever used drugs.

But Dailey said there was strong motivation to lie: Lewis’ three-year, $9 million contract, which would have been nullified by illegal drug use.

``A disclosure that cocaine was being used would place that money in huge jeopardy,″ Dailey said.

When Mudge finally was told of the possible cocaine use, he told Lewis he should be checked out further, but Lewis died before that was arranged, Dailey said. He added that Lewis also refused to follow the doctor’s orders to stay away from certain physical activities.

However, Harley said claims of drug use, besides being false, are immaterial to the case. The doctors, Harley said, were responsible for providing the best care, regardless of the cause of the heart condition.

Superior Court Judge Thayer Fremont-Smith imposed a gag order and none of the main participants in the case would comment publicly.

But the story of Lewis’ death and the finger-pointing that followed has played itself out very publicly in a city that loved its Celtics and adored the team’s brightest star when he died.

It began April 29, 1993, when Lewis collapsed during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets. A ``Dream Team″ of New England Baptist Hospital doctors assembled by the Celtics diagnosed him with arrhythmia, a potentially life-threatening, career-ending heart condition.

``I concluded he did not have a normal heart,″ said Dr. Gerald Miley, one of the doctors who examined Lewis and the first witness to testify in the trial.

``I believed there was a strong probability his life was at risk.″

The grim conclusion led Lewis to seek a second opinion from one of Boston’s most respected cardiologists _ Mudge, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Mudge reported that Lewis suffered from a neurological disorder that causes fainting spells. With proper treatment, he said, Lewis could return to professional basketball.

Three months later, Lewis died while shooting hoops in the offseason at Brandeis University in Waltham, leaving a pregnant wife and thousands of fans.

The state medical examiner listed the cause of death as adenovirus 2, a virus that could have caused inflammation of the heart, scarring of tissue and, ultimately, a fatal cardiac arrest.

Autopsy consultants later said Lewis had ``athlete’s heart″ _ a left ventricle that had become enlarged from pumping massive amounts of blood. Everyone who examined Lewis’ body agreed there was no conclusive evidence of cocaine, which could have been an alternative explanation for the scarring.

Miley, who testified Monday, said he did not test Lewis for cocaine because he had no reason to doubt the All-Star when he denied he used the substance.

``I’d known him for several years,″ said Miley, an internist at New England Baptist Hospital who performed preseason physicals for the Celtics. ``I had no reason not to believe him.″

Harris-Lewis, who lives in the Boston area with her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, has said she tried, unsuccessfully, to get evidence of drug use excluded because the charges only ``sensationalize and hide the true issue.″

``I’m looking forward to everyone finally hearing the truth about Reggie, and how his life could have been saved,″ Harris-Lewis said Monday. ``When this is over, I hope and pray justice will finally be done.″

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