Patient abuse and medical abuse at New England Baptist Hospital - Home page The Boston Celtics' Reggie Lewis, his wife, Donna Harris-Lewis, his death after leaving Dr. Arnold Scheller and the New England Baptist Hospital.

I am not the only person who lost all of their patient rights and was forced to flee into the night from the New England Baptist Hospital after refusing to be treated by a physician from ProSports Orthopedics. Even though I was a bedridden, multiple-trauma patient with a broken neck, I ended up, like Reggie Lewis, in flight from New England Baptist Hospital without the treatment I needed (See Abused at the Baptist: A Chronology.)

Those of you who have lived in Boston for a while will certainly remember the tragic story of Reggie Lewis and his untimely death. The explanation that Dr. Arnold Scheller and the folks at the Baptist put out to the press at the time was that Reggie and his wife Donna fled NEBH to nearby Brigham and Women's Hospital because they were shopping for a diagnosis that they liked better. In an interview with Boston-area television station WCVB-TV two days after Lewis transferred from the Baptist, and as reported by The Boston Globe, Scheller violates Lewis's confidentiality several times by publicly offering a diagnosis of arrythmia that he suggested would end Reggie's career as a pro athlete.

By the time they left the Baptist, Reggie and Donna were already so outraged about the violations of Reggie's patient confidentiality and allegations of drug use by Dr. Scheller and other doctors at the Baptist that they rarely spoke to the press at all. But a closer reading of the source materials (checking The Boston Globe Archives, reading back issues of The Boston Herald, tidbits gleaned from the medical malpractice suit Donna Harris-Lewis brought after her husband's death), shows quite a different picture to me. And, informed by my own experiences at the Baptist, one that shows a striking similarity to some of the abuse I experienced there.

Even at the time (1994), I did not buy the official explanation about why Reggie and Donna had fled the Baptist so precipitately. Two obviously bright and well-educated people, with insurance, money and connections, if they are merely shopping for a diagnosis, change hospitals during the working day in a calm and orderly way. People who are in fear for their health and safety flee into the night after numerous desperate phone calls, as the Lewises did; as I did, when I was finally permitted to go.

Reggie Lewis left the New England Baptist Hospital, by accounts published in The Boston Globe, around midnight, in the back of a laundry truck driven by George Kaye, a vice president of Brigham and Women's Hospital, who brought a guard dog with him in case there was trouble. Initially, staffers and administrators at NEBH refused to admit him, or even inform the Lewises that he was there.

But let's have a look at what was said by the Lewises themselves. Especially given my experiences, a different picture emerges than that of two people calmly and calculatedly shopping for a diagnosis.

Donna Harris-Lewis is reported by The Globe as calling her friend George Kaye in the middle of the night from Reggie's bathroom. Scheller, who had assembled a team of 12 cardiologists, delivered his stunning verdict to the Lewises, and later blamed Reggie for leaving the Baptist (more on that below). During her lawsuit against the Brigham cardiologist, who she said defamed Reggie with allegations of drug use, Donna Harris-Lewis was asked about this abrupt change of medical care: “Asked by her attorney why Lewis transferred to Brigham and Women's after being told he had a potentially fatal heart condition, Harris-Lewis said her husband had received little information from his doctors until that diagnosis. As a result, she said, the couple wanted a second opinion.” (emphasis mine)

In his first published interview after leaving Brigham and Women's, Reggie and Donna were highly critical of Scheller's comments, made on television, and that were subsequently softened for the print media in the days following. “'I just couldn't believe it,' Lewis said of Scheller's (televised) comments. 'I just thought that no one should have been saying anything at that point. Not about my life. If I wanted people to know something, I feel like I have that right to give out that information.'”  [Reggie was right. Even as a public figure, he was entitled to medical privacy and confidentiality, under both state and JCAHO standards. But Scheller spoke in detail to the press about Lewis’ diagnosis, condition, personal psychology, and future job prospects anyway.]

In addition, Reggie painted a scene “in which they were prevented from attending a critical meeting on his condition and were delivered the sobering diagnosis by doctors who never examined Lewis.” (emphasis mine)

Further, The Globe reports, “Lewis said he and his wife also asked to speak with the doctors but were told they couldn't. Lewis said he was examined only by Scheller and Dr. Thomas Nessa.” Reggie also expresses dismay with the repeated questions of his possible drug use, a theme that would haunt all of his subsequent care. “'It was upsetting, just knowing the kind of person I am,' he said. 'I would never use drugs, never have and never will. For them to say it once, I figured they'd say it once and leave it at that. For them to bring it up again and again, it's like, wow, they probably think that I used drugs or something.'”

In fact, Donna Harris-Lewis testified as part of her lawsuit against Dr. Gilbert Mudge, the cardiologist at the Brigham, that her husband was asked the same question several times by several doctors at New England Baptist Hospital. Now really, if it had been a white player, like Larry Bird or Kevin McHale, in that hospital bed, do you think there would have been persistent quizzing of him about cocaine use?

On the other hand, Scheller seemed to think the whole thing was Reggie's fault: “Scheller criticized Lewis for not realizing the magnitude of talent that had been assembled to diagnose his case,” The Globe reports in its article published three days after Reggie had decamped to the Brigham. “(Scheller) said the player probably was in denial with regard to his condition. 'It was like putting together 12 cardiologists with egos as big as the Atlantic Ocean, and not always agreeing,' he said. 'I thank every one of them. They came in on a Sunday afternoon and put their egos aside and they were all going to solve this one problem.'”

We are so very glad they gave up their Sunday for this! And Reggie should have been grateful as well, I suppose, despite their multiple violations of his patient rights, and inappropriate and possibly racist treatment of Reggie and his wife.

Scheller continues: “'I don't think Reggie appreciated that ... I hope he does in time, to realize the level of medical care he had at his access before he walked out on it.'” It seems pretty apparent to me in retrospect, and especially in light of the Massachusetts Medical Examiner's report on the cause of Reggie's death, that Dr. Scheller may have asked Reggie to take a drug test before he fled from the Baptist, to cover his (Scheller's) own negligence in forcing Reggie to continue to play through his previous fainting spells (see below).

Imagine how insulting and scary it was for the Lewises, who had known for some time that there was something medically wrong with Reggie, to be treated like this. Arnold Scheller, after all, had declared publicly that Reggie's career was over. What could be a greater conflict of interest than to have Scheller responsible for Reggie's medical well-being, and, at the same time, as a member of the Celtics' team's management, to have business incentives to possibly deny disability payments to Reggie in order to save the Celtics million of dollars?

Let's go over two things here: Reggie Lewis' doctor-patient relationship with Dr. Scheller, which was rife with conflicts of interest on Scheller's part, and Reggie Lewis' character and position in the community. Reggie Lewis was what was known in the parlance I grew up with as a “race man.” This is a term describing someone who takes his responsibility as a member of a minority group seriously, who is a proud black man. Someone like Jackie Robinson or Curtis Flood. Reggie Lewis took his responsibilities to the community very seriously, as did his wife, Donna. It's highly unlikely that he was a coke fiend, for that reason alone.

Scheller, on the other hand, did not even seem to be aware of the devastating conflicts of interest he faced as Reggie's doctor, as well as spokesman for and representative of and employee of the Boston Celtics corporation. His statements to the press show a total disregard for Reggie's medical privacy, his privacy as an employee of the Celtics, and his feelings as a human being. Scheller's medically dubious earlier insistence that Reggie play through other fainting spells he experienced while on the court had left the Lewises persistently troubled that Dr. Scheller was not so much interested in Reggie as a patient as he was in his own job as Celtics team physician and enforcer of Reggie's contract. And none of these obvious conflicts of interest seem to have been handled, addressed, or even discussed with Reggie and Donna before they fled from the Baptist into the night.

Let's now set the record straight. Reggie Lewis was NOT a drug user. In the retrial of the medical malpractice suit against Mudge, no less an authority that the Massachusetts Medical Examiner stated that the scarring on Reggie's heart discovered at autopsy was not caused by cocaine.

Does this sound familiar? A patient at New England Baptist Hospital experiences communications problems and abusive treatment. The patient is refused permission to talk to his/her doctors. The patient is insulted, reviled, and his or her reputation is slandered while he or she is at The New England Baptist Hospital. Without any help from the hospital staff, and, in fact, while they are trying to prevent it, the patient flees from the Baptist under cover of night to another hospital. Does this sound familiar?

This same patient, both during and after his/her stay, is subjected to numerous patients' rights violations: the right to repectful treatment, to have patient confidentiality and privacy, to be able to see your own doctors, and the right to choose your own physician. Significant conflicts of interest among his/her “caregivers” go unresolved. Yet this patient is characterized publicly as troublesome, ungrateful and possibly morally unfit. Does this sound familiar?

It seems to me in hindsight that Reggie Lewis was treated by Arnold Scheller in a very similar way to how I was treated by Dr. James Karlson and the other physicians at NEBH. As I've often said to people about my stay at the Baptist, if I'd had a cell phone, my husband would have been in the bathroom calling everyone we knew, too.