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The Doctor Can't Help Himself

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Ariel Lederman, with the guitar signed by George Harrison.  

As time went on, these talks were organized by “Lederman clubs,” groups of grateful former patients who would show up to provide testimonials. “I believe in the nineteenth century they called that a medicine show,” says Jonathan Behrins, a Staten Island trial lawyer suing Lederman on behalf of nine Italian patients. “It’s got all the trappings of a classic con.”

Like any businessman, Lederman knew that testimonials work even better when they come from celebrities. He turned the walls of his waiting room into the kind of celebrity shrine you see in Italian red-sauce joints. Sick and dying patients could behold signed photos from the hodgepodge of luminaries he’d treated or met: Curtis Sliwa praised his “brainiac doc” near photos of Lederman chatting with Rudy Giuliani, not far from the shot of Marilyn Quayle visiting the department. Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, and Charo received equal places of honor.

Lederman’s canny sense of self-promotion seemed to be paying off. By the late nineties, as many as 140 patients would cycle through the department on a given day. The linear accelerators whirred and pivoted around their bodies from 6 A.M. to midnight, five nights a week, and even on Saturdays. The hospital started an International Patient Program and opened an office in Naples, Italy. Soon, sick people from all over the world were flying in. Even an ailing Beatle was willing to give the magic ray gun a shot. Lederman was summoned to the Harrisons’ Swiss villa to make his case for treatment.

Once Harrison arrived in Staten Island, Lederman basked in his reflected limelight. He told a friend that he was spending so much time with the rock star that his kids wondered if he’d ever be home to cook dinner again. “Gil said George Harrison didn’t want anybody else taking care of him,” the friend says. “He wanted Gil to be on 24/7.” When Harrison needed to pee, Lederman was there with a plastic urinal. Lederman told another doctor that Harrison offered to autograph things for him, saying, “I can make you a very rich man,” and that Lederman had politely declined: “I’m already a rich man. I don’t need you to autograph for that purpose.”

Some doctors who saw the two together say they looked like close friends. “That’s ridiculous,” says another source who was at the hospital every day. “You might have seen Lederman behaving tenderly. But George was barely coherent at times.” Lederman, the source says, spent only about three hours total in Harrison’s presence, and his behavior was “cloying.” As for that close bond? The morning before Harrison left the hospital, Lederman came into his room in a bright mood. As the doctor waxed on about his mother, Harrison, according to the source, spoke three measured words: “Please . . . stop . . . talking.”

But it wasn’t these interactions that set off alarm bells in the Harrison camp; it was the feeling that Lederman intended to use Harrison to promote his treatment. Before long, Lederman popped up on The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel, who introduced him as the doctor treating Harrison. And when the rock star died, Lederman gave touching anecdotes to Good Morning America, CNN, NBC, Fox News, Us Weekly, Newsweek, the New York Post, the Daily News, a variety of British tabloids, and the National Enquirer, which somehow got the erroneous impression that Harrison had been convalescing in Lederman’s own Staten Island home. He told reporters about the spiritual quest that led Harrison to India, how the Harrison he knew was a simple man who would have been happy planting trees, and how Harrison was in no pain and wasn’t afraid of death. He even allowed the Enquirer into his home to take a photo of his son, Ariel, playing the guitar that generous George had signed for him. Of course, many of the stories also mentioned Lederman as a “top cancer specialist” who “pioneered” a “revolutionary cancer surgery” that had a “90 percent success rate.”

“Look,” says Dr. Lederman, “just because someone died doesn’t mean they died of the cancer or the treatment.”

The exceedingly private Harrison family, however, wasn’t interested in allowing the former Beatle to become Lederman’s pitchman from the great beyond. To stop the doctor from talking about her dead husband, Olivia Harrison filed a complaint with the State Board of Professional Medical Conduct, which fined and censured Lederman for revealing too much about his patient. To prevent the autographed guitar from potentially ending up on eBay, she slapped him with a $10 million lawsuit. (As part of the settlement, Lederman relinquished the guitar and agreed not to speak further about Harrison or the case.) The same week the case was filed, SIUH announced that Lederman would be replaced as director of radiation oncology.

According to a doctor at the hospital, Lederman blamed this unfortunate series of events on the fact that Olivia Harrison was “a little jealous that [George’s] attention was being devoted more to Gil than to her.”

To put it kindly, Lederman seems to have a creative relationship with the facts, whether about his friendship with a former Beatle or the possibilities of a cancer treatment. From the beginning, the way that Lederman and the hospital advertised radiosurgery raised eyebrows in the medical community. “I’d pick up the Sunday Times and see these bold advertisements that said, ‘If you’ve been told you have an incurable brain tumor, come to Staten Island University Hospital,’ ” says Loeffler. “I thought that was a little deceptive, because if you’ve been told this, the reality is that it’s probably true.”

But true to his advertising, and for whatever it’s worth, Lederman was willing to treat patients whom most doctors would turn away. “How do you say to a patient, ‘Go home and die; we’re not willing to try’?” asks Bruce Tannenbaum, SIUH’s former manager of radiation oncology. “It’s not doing any harm, so it’s not unethical to do.” But another former colleague took a dimmer view of the program’s acceptance policy: “I got the impression that if a stray dog had insurance, Lederman would treat it.”

Depending on your point of view, when it comes to new technologies, Lederman is either a forward-thinking early adopter or unacceptably reckless. In 1996, he learned that at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, where radiosurgery had been invented decades before, two doctors had published preliminary results of a trial in which they used the same treatment on tumors below the neck. It was a controversial procedure because the body could not be stabilized as well as the brain: Organs move around, as much as a centimeter even in a restful state; the brain stays put. But the Swedes had received FDA approval for a device that they claimed stabilized the body enough to make radiosurgery both safe and effective. While many doctors weren’t yet convinced, Lederman, who had been performing brain radiosurgery for years, believed it would work on the body as well. He called Varone from Sweden to tell him about the revolutionary new treatment. Within two months, before there had been any independent scientific studies, Lederman became the first doctor in the United States to offer body radiosurgery.

And of course, he wasted no time in marketing the hell out of it. Any patient who called a toll-free number received a glossy pamphlet and video touting the procedure’s successes, followed by a personal call from the doctor himself. With liver metastases, which typically indicate an aggressive cancer, “we have a success rate of 95 percent,” says the pamphlet, which defines “success” as any cancer that shrinks, or at least remains the same size. How about pancreatic cancer, perhaps the most quick and deadly of them all? “Over 94 percent of primary pancreas cancers have been successfully controlled in the treated area.”


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