Longform

TRICK OR TREATMENT

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If every physician wound up with patients like Charles Stevinson, medical school might not seem like such an onerous obstacle.

That's because Stevinson, whose car dealerships and real estate have made him a millionaire more than a hundred times over, has taken the physician-patient relationship to a whole new level. He was so impressed with his oncologist, a Yugoslav named Rajko Medenica whom Stevinson credits with saving his life, that two years ago he built the doctor his own clinic here. The Medenica-Stevinson Center for Cancer and Immunology occupies 60,000 square feet in the Denver West office park, which Stevinson owns.

The clinic currently is fully staffed only several days a month, when Medenica flies into town from his headquarters on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. But it is the focus of grander plans: Stevinson says he hopes it will grow into one of the largest outpatient cancer centers in the country.

Stevinson is not Medenica's only grateful patron with local connections. Anne Coors, wife of Adolph Coors Company vice chairman Joseph Coors, says Medenica has treated her disease with great success. As a result, the Coors family recently approached Mercy Hospital to pitch what oncologist Richard Hankensen, a colleague of Medenica's, says is to become a world-class research center built around Medenica's expertise. Sources say the clinic would occupy the entire tenth floor of Mercy.

Despite the enthusiasm of Medenica's patients, however, some of the rest of Denver's medical community has not exactly embraced the doctor and his attempts to establish a medical beachhead here. At the beginning of this year, for instance, St. Anthony's Hospital, where Medenica admits local patients, granted him permanent privileges to practice medicine at the hospital. But last month St. Anthony's reversed itself and voted to restrict Medenica's practice to no new patients, and to downgrade his privileges to only temporary. In addition, sources say that the local medical community's chilly reception has caused Medenica to back away from the Mercy research project, at least temporarily. "He's not being welcomed out here," says one person familiar with the doctor's attempts to settle in Denver.

That, reply the doctor's supporters, is Denver's loss. "I think the man is a genius," says John West, a former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is convinced that Medenica saved his daughter-in-law from dying of throat cancer. "If Denver wants to lock out a man who is the stature of Louis Pasteur," adds Hankensen, "then it can do that."

Not surprisingly, Medenica is not your typical doctor. In fact, he has for years been entangled in a ganglion of personal and professional contradictions. They speak volumes about the currents of competition and jealousies that wind through the medical community, the medical and ethical vagaries of how it treats its sickest patients, and the influence money wields in today's financially besieged hospitals.

He is a recognized expert in interferon treatments of cancer--but he has been convicted of fraud in both Yugoslavia and Switzerland, where he pioneered his techniques. And while he has enjoyed the support of nearly every politically connected person in South Carolina, some in the medical community there now hope he will quietly leave the state.

Medenica is on the cutting edge of experimental treatments of cancer and diseases of the immune system, his supporters say--but he still raises eyebrows for his handling of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, whom Medenica diagnosed several years ago as having pesticide poisoning rather than Parkinson's disease, as had been previously diagnosed.

He enjoys a nearly godlike stature among his patients, who to a person fervently believe that he is the only man in the world who can keep them alive. Yet last year his treatments were the focus of a professional review that found his work "scientifically undisciplined" and "pseudo-scientific," and raised ethical questions about his work.

Recently, the contradictory winds swirling about Medenica converged in a South Carolina courthouse. As a result of questions raised about his methods, the board of the Hilton Head Hospital late last year sharply limited the oncologist's practice to more traditional treatments. That didn't sit well with a handful of Medenica's patients, who claim that the restrictions are--literally--killing them. They have sued the doctors who reviewed Medenica's work, charging them with willfully driving him out of business.

The most vigorous of these patients has been Stevinson, who has traveled back and forth between Hilton Head and Denver dozens of times, and who has footed the six-figure legal bill almost single-handedly. "I am very familiar with the histories of many of Dr. Medenica's patients," he wrote in a recent court filing, "and I know without his special treatment many will quickly die as their previous doctors and hospitals predicted they would."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer