Lifflander is not the only source of Lederman’s legal troubles. The Staten Island firm of Behrins and Behrins has brought a billion-dollar suit against Lederman and SIUH for, among other things, violating rico, the anti-racketeering statute, by concocting a scheme involving a fake Italian doctor who allegedly received kickbacks for funneling Italian patients to Staten Island using promotional materials that again touted a 90 percent success rate.
Lederman claims that many of the Italian cases he took were palliative only, and a hospital source says the suit is merely the result of a disgruntled former employee riling up the Italian families. But you have to wonder if people who sought only some alleviation of their pain would really travel 4,000 miles for it.
When Federica Losacco Facchini and her husband, Massimo, who at 32 had inoperable liver metastases from colon cancer, traveled from Bologna to Staten Island in 2002, they were coming for a cure. “Without question, the thing that first attracted us was the 90 percent success rate,” she says. “It said that it would cure tumors that had metastasized. Nobody ever said that. Who wouldn’t call? It’s unquestionable that what they’re offering you is a miracle cure. They don’t use that word, but that’s what they were promising.”
Back in Italy after the treatment, Massimo started running a high fever. When Federica called the hospital, she says, she was told by an Italian-speaking program aide, “It’s better he has a fever. It means the body is eliminating the tumor.” Four and a half months later, he was dead. According to Facchini, all ten of the patients who were staying at the hospital’s residence hall when she and her husband were there had metastatic cancer. Not one is alive today. “How can you say you have a 90 percent success rate if no one survived?” she asks.
It may not be fair to blame Lederman for the deaths of his terminal patients, but what if his treatment increased rather than palliated the pain they experienced in the last weeks of their lives? That’s what attorney Steven North says happened to Suzanne Mikul, a 68-year-old preacher’s wife from New Mexico who died from colon cancer. After being diagnosed in 1996, she had a colostomy, a harrowing round of chemotherapy, and three courses of standard radiation. Her doctors told her that her body, after receiving a lifetime total of 9,560 rads, just wouldn’t be able to take any more radiation exposure.
“We were praying for supernatural healing,” says her husband, John. “But as far as medicine, there didn’t seem to be anything else we could do for her until we heard about this treatment.” He says that when they arrived in Staten Island in November 2001, they were assured by Silverman that SIUH’s radiation wouldn’t count against the radiation totals Suzanne had previously received. “He didn’t give any guarantees, but there certainly weren’t any warnings,” says John. (Silverman could not be reached for comment; Lederman’s attorney declined to address the case.)
After receiving 3,000 more rads, Suzanne went home and waited for her tumor to shrink or disappear. Soon she started feeling pain in her lower back, and nurses noticed that what had started as two patches of redness had scabbed over and looked infected. A surgeon was called in to debride, or scrape away, the infected tissue. The surgeon scraped and scraped and made an alarming discovery: In two softball-size areas above her buttocks, all that was left between Suzanne Mikul’s skin and her abdominal cavity was liquefied dead flesh. By the time he finished cleaning the wounds, he could see clear through to her tailbone and down into her exposed gut. Stool and undigested pills were leaking right out of the holes in her back.
“Do you have a strong stomach?” asks North as he passes a five-by-seven color photo across his desk. It looks as though she’d been shot at point-blank range with a double-barrel cannon.
These days, Lederman, who seems hell-bent on not expressing the slightest bit of contrition about anything that’s happened, is pursuing the defiant course of doing precisely everything that got him into this mess in the first place. In March of last year, he was hired by the cash-strapped Cabrini Medical Center, which chose to overlook the potential public-relations nightmare and focus on the business he might bring in. (To help his case for employment, Lederman managed to produce George Harrison’s only—though virtually estranged—sister to vouch for him with the Cabrini CEO.) Since then, traffic through the radiation-oncology department has doubled, and the hospital is looking for space to install a new linear accelerator. Lederman’s celebrity pictures are up on the walls. He recently met with a Lederman club in Italy. And he’s producing numbers-heavy brochures. His practice would certainly be sending out videos by now, if it weren’t for that pesky coot Lifflander, who scared the Cabrini administration into shelving his first one by claiming that the use of patient testimonials is illegal under state law. Lederman’s got a plan to remedy that problem.
Three days before Thanksgiving, Lederman is sitting in the sixteenth-floor Cabrini lunch room, which has been converted into a reasonable facsimile of the Charlie Rose set, complete with round table, black backdrop, video cameras, and TV lights. Across the table from him is a knockout brunette named Tahna Regan-Fischer, the sister of a former patient. She’s been flown in from Phoenix to play the inquisitive, pretty young woman you always see in infomercials, because the law doesn’t say anything about sisters of patients declaring that Lederman is a wonderful doctor.
Her brother, Todd, suffered from meta-static hemangioperisitoma, a rare soft-tissue sarcoma that spread to nine inoperable sites in his body. Regan-Fischer encouraged him to see Lederman after she read a George Harrison obituary. Todd died last January. “The next to the last thing my brother ever said to me,” Regan-Fischer told me a few weeks before the taping, “was that he thought Dr. Lederman was a great guy.”
After she applies her hair spray, the room falls silent and the twin cameras start rolling. Lederman poses a question, some version of which he’ll soon have to address in court. “There’s a delicate line for a physician to be too reluctant to offer treatment or too eager to offer treatment,” he says. “How do you think my relationship was towards Todd?”
“Most people were telling him, ‘You need to do this, you can’t do that, you’re going to die. This is going to work. This is not going to work. Try this. You’re going to lose your hair. You’re going to vomit,’ ” she says placidly into the camera. “You didn’t say anything like that. You said this is what you have. This is what we can do. And it worked.”