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TRICK OR TREATMENT

part 2 of 2
Most physicians who are honest with themselves will acknowledge that cancer can be a capricious disease and that claiming success for cures or remissions is an inexact science. Add to this the fact that many terminal patients go to oncologists with the expectation only that they will die, and there is ample opportunity for people to believe exactly what they want to believe.

"I love him," responds Robin Flood, a Chicago woman with an autoimmune disease who moved to Hilton Head to be closer to Medenica's clinic, and who named her daughter Demetria after the doctor's middle name. "He's changed our lives. There are many sides to Dr. Medenica, and they're all good. He is what doctors should be."

"His treatments have never been proven," says a local doctor familiar with Medenica's work. "His anecdotal success stories are of no scientific value whatsoever; we all have those. He tends to mix some conventional treatment with the bullshit, so you never know what's actually working."

For years such contradictory anecdotes of Medenica's work were just that--until 1986. That's when a young oncologist named Jane Gehlsen arrived on Hilton Head Island. A graduate of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, she noticed that Medenica's resume showed he was there at the same time. She also observed that he had claimed to study or do research at a number of first-rate centers when several of her friends had been at the same institutions, yet neither she nor her friends had ever heard of Medenica.

Gehlsen began checking the oncologist's credentials. In short order she received letters from administrators at Sloan-Kettering, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, M.D. Anderson Tumor Institute and the Mayo Clinic indicating that Medenica had exaggerated his affiliation with them.

Meanwhile, another island physician, Daniel Howley, a neurologist, also began investigating Medenica. He began reviewing the oncologist's charts, and according to court documents filed in South Carolina, eventually went so far as to contact several of Medenica's patients under a false name in an effort to obtain information on how he had treated his patients.

The suspicions snowballed. In 1991 Gehlsen and another doctor filed complaints with the hospital against Medenica, in which they alleged malpractice in specific cases. By then, says one source, "the hospital had two complaints from hospital staff saying this guy was full of shit."

By 1992 the hospital was concerned enough that it ordered a peer review of Medenica done by an outside specialist. It selected an oncologist from North Carolina. Although the review has not been released, it reportedly was not favorable to Medenica's work.

Medenica's medical reputation continued to take a beating as the new year began. In early 1993 a more comprehensive review of his work was conducted by specialists in several fields, including a neurologist and an immunologist, as well as two oncologists. It, too, was devastating.

A hospital committee's summary of that evaluation, now a court record, concluded that "Dr. Medenica's practice at Hilton Head Hospital represents an unregulated, scientifically undisciplined application of medical technology mixed with charisma, unrealistic optimism, pseudo-scientific protocol, and excellent basic nursing care."

Although the text of the special outside peer review team's work was confidential, a portion of the report, dated April 1, 1993, was obtained by The Cancer Letter, a public-policy newsletter published in Washington, D.C. According to the evaluation, Medenica's medicine was poor. It concluded that Medenica seemed to "cloak last-effort therapy with pseudoscientific procedure, thus providing false hope for patients."

In other words, summarizes one source (who, like many others, wants anonymity because of a fear of being sued by Medenica's supporters): "Medenica's patients are all cured--right up until they die."

The evaluation further observed that Medenica performed "excessive and useless laboratory testing costing hundreds of thousands of dollars." At one point the reviewer, Dr. Howard Ozer, then chief of oncology at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, described the number of tests as "beyond bizarre." He concluded, "It is clear at this point that Dr. Medenica does not realize what he's dealing with."

Last May, Alfred Higgins, a neurosurgeon and chairman of Hilton Head Hospital's medical executive committee, sent a series of letters to the American Cancer Society and the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners, among others. In them, Higgins asked for assistance in evaluating Medenica's treatments, which, he wrote, "suggested a number of questionable practices in terms of both medical and ethical issues."

Perhaps realizing that they had a potential legal bombshell on their hands, administrators at Hilton Head Hospital quietly began attempting to get rid of Medenica. In a taped telephone conversation that is part of a lawsuit in South Carolina, for instance, Hilton Head's CEO, Steven Caywood, assured Gehlsen that Medenica was on his way out. His application for renewed privileges at Hilton Head, Caywood said, was "just not going to happen."

Ten months ago, Stevinson--along with Ali, Anne Coors and ten other Medenica patients--filed their lawsuit against Gehlsen, Howley and Higgins. In it, they charged that the three doctors had conspired to oust Medenica from Hilton Head. As a result, they concluded, the doctors were interfering with their physician/patient relationship and denying them potentially life-sustaining treatment.

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