THE DOCTOR MAY BE OUT
The recent death of local millionaire Chuck Stevinson had an effect on many people. But perhaps no one outside his family will feel the loss more than a controversial South Carolina physician who also operates a cancer clinic in Denver. Indeed, the death of the Golden automobile and real estate magnate--combined with a devastating malpractice verdict last week--leaves the professional future of Dr. Rajko Medenica very much up in the air.
While many wealthy people support the arts, Stevinson patronized his oncologist, the Yugoslavian-born Medenica, whom he credited with prolonging his life nearly a decade. Stevinson died February 18 of a rare form of blood disease called Waldenstrom's syndrome, which he'd been diagnosed with nearly twenty years earlier.
In late 1987, after Stevinson's doctors told him he had only a short time to live, he called Medenica, who at the time was in Switzerland. Days later the two men met at Medenica's Hilton Head clinic, and the doctor began treating Stevinson's disease.
During the next eight years, Stevinson, who developed the successful Denver West office complex and whose fortune has been estimated at as much as $100 million, came to the defense of his doctor numerous times. And defending Medenica, many of whose treatments were considered experimental, was not an easy job.
Ten years ago the doctor was convicted--wrongly, he said--of fraud charges in both Yugoslavia and Switzerland. In 1989 Stevinson flew to Europe to help Medenica fight his legal proceedings.
And two years ago, when numerous members of Hilton Head's medical community began charging that Medenica was a phony who preyed on the hopes of the dying, Stevinson--along with other well-known Medenica patients, including Anne Coors and Muhammad Ali--fought back. They filed a lawsuit against several South Carolina physicians who Stevinson claimed were trying to prevent him from receiving life-saving treatments ("The Well-Heeled Doc," April 27, 1994).
Stevinson believed fiercely in Medenica's medical abilities, and legal aid wasn't the only way he protected and promoted his cancer doctor. Three years ago he began building Medenica a clinic in one of Denver West's office buildings. Although at the time of his death it was far from filled, Stevinson had reserved 60,000 square feet for the Medenica-Stevinson Center for Cancer and Immunology and spinoff medical businesses.
Medenica himself has practiced at the clinic only infrequently, usually coming to Denver once a month and staying at the nearby Marriott Hotel. One reason was his legal difficulties in South Carolina.
By last spring, hospital officials in that state had limited his practice to oncology, prohibiting him from working in immunology and hematology, Medenica's other specialties. In Denver, St. Anthony's Hospital had cut Medenica's medical privileges from permanent to temporary and restricted him to treating current patients.
At the same time Medenica was coming under attack from the medical community, a South Carolina breast-cancer patient named Gayle Taylor filed a malpractice suit against the doctor. She claimed that his concoction of cancer-fighting drugs had nearly cost her her life.
In her lawsuit, Taylor and her husband, a local politician, charged that Medenica hadn't informed them that her treatments were experimental. "What is going on at Hilton Head is a very serious little money mill that preys on people that have lost hope," the Taylors' lawyer told the Island Packet, a Hilton Head newspaper.
During the two-and-a-half-week trial that ended February 21, Medenica responded that he only wanted to cure Taylor. As proof, he noted that he'd charged her insurance company only $828 of a $30,000 bill. Among the witnesses testifying for Medenica were Ali's wife and former South Carolina governor John West, a patient.
But the jury deliberated barely an hour before deciding in favor of the Taylors. The verdict: a $14 million judgment against Medenica.
In a written statement, Medenica defends his medical care. "I stand firm in my treatment decisions for Mrs. Taylor," he says, adding that Taylor "did not continue my follow-up and changed physicians."
Medenica's lawyers say they are considering an appeal. But the jury's decision, three days after Stevinson's death, couldn't have come at a worse time for the cancer doctor.
Since last spring, Medenica had won some partial victories over Denver's skeptical medical community. Last summer, for instance, St. Anthony's finally granted him permanent privileges to admit patients, but only to practice traditional medicine--"vanilla oncology," says one source. Any experimental treatments still must be approved by the hospital.
And the Stevinson-Medenica clinic never really seemed to catch on. Despite Stevinson's grand plans, much of the Denver West building remains empty. Last year, Stevinson hired another oncologist, Richard Hankensen of Iowa, to run the facility.
Although Hankensen worked with Medenica in South Carolina for several months, his cancer treatments are much less controversial than his colleague's. (Hankensen could not be reached for comment.)
Greg Stevinson, president of Denver West Realty Inc. and Chuck Stevinson's son, says the Stevinson family, through various foundations, will continue to support the clinic on its property. "We're still very interested in doing what we can in getting cutting-edge cancer and immunological work done," he says. "It may not move along at as fast a pace as it would have if Dad were around, but we definitely see things moving ahead."
Medenica insists he looks forward to continuing his Denver work. "I would like to assure all of my patients who are treated at the clinic that I will continue all activity in Denver," he says. "My treatment at the Denver clinic will be continued remembering the huge efforts that Chuck Stevinson gave for medical science."
Greg Stevinson says the family may consider moving some nonmedical businesses into space reserved for the clinic, although he quickly adds that more medical businesses might move in later. "We're in the process of deciding that right now," he says.
But Stevinson is less firm about exactly what role Medenica himself will play at the Denver site. "There's been no decision whatsoever to keep him on," he says. "We were very pleased to see Dr. Hankensen brought in last year. He is, in my mind, the best hope of getting this stuff out to the public."
Others close to the Denver West clinic predict that with Chuck Stevinson's death, Medenica's Denver days are numbered. One conspicuous sign: In obituary notices last week, the Stevinson family suggested memorial donations be made to the Charles Stevinson Automotive Vocational Training Scholarship Fund, not to the clinic. One source speculates that the doctor may abandon the site altogether and concentrate instead on a London clinic.
Another source familiar with Medenica's battles is more direct. "Charles Stevinson was the principal impetus for Medenica's practice here," he points out. And now that his benefactor is gone, Medenica may be, too.
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