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The Doctor Can't Help Himself

When the notorious cancer doctor Gil Lederman cadged an autograph from a dying George Harrison, the world was appalled.But as Lederman scrambles to salvage his reputation, the very nature of his experimental practice has come under attack.


(Photo credit: Eugene Richards)

On an evening in mid-November 2001, Gil Lederman made a judgment call that would bring him the kind of fame that even he had never dreamed possible. A bespectacled cancer doctor with an Alfred Kinsey fade haircut, Lederman was already something of a local celebrity; his distinctive nasal monotone had been heard for years on New York talk-radio stations, promoting his revolutionary cancer treatment, fractionated stereotactic radiosurgery, at Staten Island University Hospital. But Lederman’s fame—as a kind of Dr. Zizmor of radiation oncology—paled in comparison with that of his patient, George Harrison, who was lying in a rented house near the hospital, dying of lung cancer that had invaded his brain.

Though he’d been treating Harrison for only about a month, Lederman thought they had bonded enough to warrant an unconventional house call. “I feel like a brother to him,” the doctor confided to another physician at his hospital. So, as any man with an ailing sibling would do, Lederman showed up that night on Harrison’s doorstep with his three children in tow, so that they might say hello and good-bye to Uncle George, who was leaving the next morning for California, where he would die two weeks later.

That night has become something of an outer-borough Rashomon. Depending on whose version you believe, Lederman either had a touching visit with Harrison or bullied a dying man in a declining mental state into creating a valuable piece of rock-and-roll memorabilia. The Harrison camp claimed as follows: Lederman showed up uninvited and instructed his 13-year-old son, Ariel, to strum a song on his Yamaha electric guitar. When the performance was over, Lederman put the guitar in Harrison’s lap and asked him to sign it. “I do not even know if I know how to spell my name anymore,” responded an exhausted Harrison. “C’mon, you can do this,” said Lederman, guiding his hand and spelling his name aloud: G-E-O-R-G-E H-A-R-R-I-S-O-N.

Lederman insisted to friends that Harrison invited the children over and happily signed the guitar. The shaky scrawl of the signature itself is inconclusive—it could have been written under duress or simply signed by a willing star on a great deal of medication. Nevertheless, once the Harrison estate sued the doctor for $10 million and the press got their mitts on the legal complaint, Lederman became a popular tabloid target. At the peak of the frenzy, he was labeled a “ghoul” and a “scumbag.” “Page Six” even ran a cartoon depicting him chasing Keith Richards with a pen and guitar. “I’m not on my deathbed!” Richards yells.

It seemed like the ultimate disgrace for a Harvard-trained, triple board-certified physician who should have been amassing yacht money or doing Lasker Award–quality research at that point in his life. Then again, Lederman’s behavior at Harrison’s deathbed wasn’t a complete surprise to those who’d been watching his curious approach to his career. “My sense of the guy is that he’s just somebody who doesn’t get it,” says a prominent radiation oncologist who’s met him on several occasions. “His social skills aren’t there.” But it turns out that questionable manners may be the least pernicious of Lederman’s sins. The doctor is now facing half a dozen multi-million-dollar civil suits, some of which accuse him of bilking terminal cancer patients by luring them with promises of a miracle cure.

As Dr. Lederman waxed on about his mother, George Harrison, according to a source, spoke three measured words: “Please...stop...talking.”

Lederman’s defenders claim that the Harrison matter has turned a caring, innovative physician into the kind of wounded game that trial lawyers love to hunt. “Lederman prides himself on taking the most challenging cases that nobody else wants, cases where patients have not been given any hope whatsoever. He’s not offering them a cure but an option,” says Andrew Garson, an attorney who defended Lederman in two previous malpractice cases and believes the recent spate of lawsuits stems from his client’s bad press. Even a judge weighing a recent change-of-venue request acknowledged that Lederman had been through the ringer. His decision played off Harrison’s “Something”: “Something in the folks he treats / Attracts bad press like no other doctor.”

But others contend that the Harrison case was just a symptom of Lederman’s larger pathology of being singularly unable to grasp right and wrong when dealing with the fragile emotions of desperately ill people. “The real issue with Gil is the following,” says Jay Loeffler, chief of radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Is he a genius, far ahead of his time? Or is he a scoundrel?”

Lederman grew up a bookish Jew surrounded by the flinty Protestants of Waterloo, Iowa. His Ukrainian-immigrant grandfather had started a small clothing concern called Lederman’s Western Outfitters, where young Gil earned a nickel an hour. (This explains the geeky scientist’s incongruous fondness for Western shirts and ornate cowboy boots.) He decided he wanted to be a doctor when he was 12 years old. It was 1966, the year the Beatles released Revolver, and his older brother was nearly killed by a drunk driver. “At that moment I decided that I wanted to help people,” he says.

He trained in three specialties—internal medicine at the University of Chicago–Michael Reese Hospital, then medical oncology and radiation oncology at Harvard—and at the age of 34 became the director of Staten Island University Hospital’s radiation oncology department. Though it’s rare for a doctor who’s never practiced full-time to be the director of a program, it wasn’t exactly a prestige post. Before Lederman’s arrival in 1987, the radiation oncology department was just what you’d find in most community hospitals; that is, if you lived on Staten Island and your kid needed radiation, you’d wait about five seconds before driving to Sloan-Kettering or New York-Presbyterian. The department had a single aging cobalt machine and saw only eleven patients a day.

The ambitious new director set out to change that. Lederman forged a close relationship with then–hospital CEO Rick Varone, and, over the next decade, persuaded the administration to buy five linear accelerators, at $1.8 million a pop. In 1991, Lederman became the first doctor in New York to offer brain radiosurgery. Unlike standard radiation treatment, which irradiates a large field around a cancer, exposing healthy tissue to low doses of toxic radiation, radiosurgery is designed to zero in on the tumor. Finely shaped radiation beams are sent into the head from many different directions, with the full dose concentrated where they intersect. The upshot is that larger doses can be trained on the cancer, while healthy tissue is minimally affected. Lederman describes it with an elegantly simple metaphor: “Imagine a plum in a bread box . . . Radiosurgery can hit the plum without attacking the bread box.”

Still, the machines were worth nothing unless they had bodies to aim at, so Lederman started spreading the gospel of radiosurgery, for which he charged about $18,000 per round of treatment. “My feeling was, if you have a new treatment, then people should learn about it,” he says. “We were educating people.” There were radio ads, cable-television spots, Internet advertising, and presentations at the hospital. Lederman also went on tour, traveling to Italy, England, Israel, and many other countries to speak to prospective patients and examine their CT scans on the spot.

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