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


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.

"They wanted to distance themselves from the threatening diagnosis," Estes says. "Many of us tried to have input into the case, but that input was not accepted."

Still, Lewis' search for answers didn't end with Mudge -- he received a third opinion from the Los Angeles specialists, who concurred that he had a fainting condition, but said he also might be suffering from a potentially serious heart defect, and should be closely monitored during activity.

Hopkins tests planned

According to family members, Lewis planned to undergo further testing at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Harris-Lewis has said he was planning to undergo a basketball stress test under Mudge's supervision in his hometown.

But Lewis died on July 27, 1993, while shooting baskets at Brandeis University.

"His death took everyone by surprise," DeSanctis says. "Nobody would have anticipated he would have died the way he did, with minimal physical activity."

Ritch has suffered two heart failures, the first when she was 17, the second in 1990. She seems stunned that the Celtics never detected any problem in her son.

"By the heart being damaged the way it was, the Celtics had to have knowledge there was a problem," Ritch says. "For no one to pick up on that is unbelievable to me. Here's a player passing out, they're constantly giving him ammonia and stuff, and they say nothing's wrong."

The Globe reported that electrocardiograms given to Lewis every October in training camp from 1990 to 1992 raised enough concern that follow-up tests were performed, but the tests proved normal.

The paper also reported that Lewis suffered five or six dizzy spells while playing at Boston Garden during the 1992-93 season, and occasionally sniffed ammonia capsules to stay alert during games.

"I've read some of that stuff -- that's all wonderful in hindsight," says Dave Gavitt, who was replaced as Celtics senior vice president by M. L. Carr in June, but remains the team's vice chairman of the board.

No health complaints recalled

Gavitt says Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte "has no recollection of one incident of Reggie complaining about not feeling well."

As for Lewis' family history of heart trouble, the Celtics knew only what they were told.

And, even after his collapse, they apparently weren't told much.

Lewis failed to inform the Dream Team and Mudge of his mother's two heart failures, according to the Globe.

"The only thing we wanted was the same thing Mrs. Ritch, Donna and everybody else wanted -- for Reggie to be well," Gavitt says. "After the original diagnosis, it was so ominous, Reggie playing again was never a thought in our minds."

And after Mudge's diagnosis?

"We welcomed it, as we should have," Gavitt says. "He was Reggie's doctor. Reggie was positive about it. But there were a lot of bridges to go over before Reggie would have played again."

Still, Lewis' switch to Mudge cleared the Celtics of legal responsibility and potential financial liability. Dr. Thomas W. Nessa, a cardiologist who helped organize the Dream Team, says he took "great issue" with Mudge's diagnosis, but adds: "There wasn't much I could do about it. He was out of our hands."

None of this satisfies Ritch.

Since Lewis' death, she has had virtually no contact with the Celtics.

"In our view, I would prefer not to communicate with Reggie's mother through the media," Celtics executive VP Jan Volk says. "If there's any issue to be communicated, we would prefer to do it directly."

But no such communication has taken place.

"All these people, I feel like he was just used up," Ritch says. "He helped the Celtics make money, sell tickets. That's all it was for. His health was not important to them. If it was, they would have put a stop to this when it first started."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad