The death last December of Eddie “Umaga” Fatu opened a new frontier in the scrutiny of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Wellness Policy under its former chief executive, and now U.S. Senate candidate, Linda McMahon.
Fatu died at 36 of a familiar toxic cocktail of prescription painkillers and mood drugs. But, not surprisingly, the autopsy also showed that he had an enlarged heart. That Fatu, in addition, had abused anabolic steroids was a given. He had been suspended by WWE in 2007 after prosecutors of the Internet steroid/Human Growth Hormone dealer Signature Pharmacy found him among the more than a dozen pro wrestlers on the customer list. In June 2009, six months before he died, WWE dismissed Fatu – not because of a drug-testing “strike” per se, but because he refused to go into rehab.
(The autopsy report of the Harris County, Texas, coroner’s office can be viewed at http://muchnick.net/fatuautopsy.pdf.)
While questions about WWE drug testing are well known, it is time to focus on the company’s cardiovascular screening, which was among the changes to the Wellness Policy promulgated in the wake of the 2007 Chris Benoit murder-suicide.
The cardio program was launched with great fanfare and one heavily publicized success story: the word that it helped wrestler Alvin “MVP” Burke catch and treat his previously unknown case of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which causes a fast heartbeat. According to some sources, two of WWE’s top stars have more classic heart conditions, and at least one takes medication to control it.
So what was the deal with Umaga? Given his history, it is extremely unlikely that his enlarged heart would not have turned up in routine company screening prior to his death.
Specifically, the Fatu scenario casts doubt on both the efficacy and the ethics of Dr. Bryan Donohue, WWE’s consulting cardiologist, as well as the whole team of doctors, centered at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), who administer the Wellness Policy.
Donohue’s WWE contract is only one of his outside business interests. He’s also “co-founder, chief medical advisor, and director” of a supplement company, Vinomis Laboratories, which markets a product derived from Resveratrol (red wine abstract) per “exclusive patented Harvard Medical School science.” Vinomis hypes Resveratrol as something of a fountain of youth.
In February 2008 UPMC made effective a new ethics policy guiding the potential conflicts of interests of its doctors. Most of the policy was aimed at the associations of physicians who promote certain prescription pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs that are marketed by large pharmaceutical companies, whose products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In my reading, it is not clear how much the UPMC guidelines address the issue of doctors’ conflicts in encouraging the use of supplements, which are independent of Big Pharma.
Regardless, Donohue’s explicit equity interest in Vinomis products is an eyebrow raiser. Supplement marketing was deregulated in the U.S. in 1994, and the often unrigorous research claims and poorly vetted side effects that followed were exposed in the disastrous experience of the now-banned ephedra.
What I find equally disturbing is that Donohue is one of several UPMC physicians on WWE’s medical team. His colleague Joseph Maroon, a prominent neurologist, is the WWE medical director. Maroon (also the surgeon for retired wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino) is a team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the National Football League’s concussion policy committee.
I do not know the exact nature of Maroon’s association with Vinomis Laboratories. But Maroon is the author of a new book, The Longevity Factor, which touts Resveratrol and is cited on the company website.
Pro football fans are aware that the Pittsburgh Steelers have a long history, dating back to their 1970s Super Bowl championship teams, of being accused of harboring and condoning steroid abuse – and that, too, includes the taint of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In 2007 another team doctor with a UPMC practice, internist Richard Rydze, was fired after he turned up on the Signature Pharmacy customer list; Rydze had used a credit card to make a $150,000 purchase of growth hormone, which he claimed was for helping patients heal from injuries.
Rydze and Maroon also were both members – and the latter is an officer – of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, a nonprofit claiming 22,000-plus members in more than 100 countries.
In recent months this blog has aired concerns about Maroon’s work on concussions, the core rationale for his hire by WWE. Though Maroon does have NFL bona fides that WWE is fond of citing, it’s worth pointing out the flip side: that the league has come under fire for dragging its feet in this area. The NFL recently shook up its concussion committee (which still includes Maroon) after a Congressional investigation last year accused pro football brass of denying or downplaying research on long-term brain trauma.
Nor did Maroon cover himself in glory when he stood silent while WWE told ESPN that it had been refused access to Dr. Bennet Omalu’s studies of Chris Benoit’s brain. (Omalu considers Benoit a prime exhibit of the phenomenon the doctor calls CTE, for “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”) The truth is that Maroon did meet with Omalu at Dr. Julian Bailes’ West Virginia brain research institute in October 2008, six months after Maroon’s appointment as WWE medical director, and according to Omalu, he was shown Benoit study materials.
Returning for a moment to the familiar topic of steroid abuse, WWE also has a consultancy with Dr. Vijay Bahl, yet another UPMC clinician. Bahl was hired only after another endocrinologist with sterling credentials in the sports anti-doping world – Southwestern Medical School’s Richard Auchus – was bypassed. Auchus had been invited by WWE to submit a proposal for a new and tougher post-Benoit therapeutic use exemption (TUE) program for testosterone prescribed under the Wellness Policy. After sending his recommendations to WWE, Auchus never heard back.
I have invited the Linda McMahon campaign, WWE, Dr. Donahue, Dr. Maroon, and UPMC to comment on this report.
Last week McMahon’s spokesman, Ed Patru, issued a statement in response to more general media inquiries prompted by coverage of my Connecticut media and bookstore tour, and focused on the WWE Wellness Policy and the pandemic of drug abuse and death in pro wrestling. The campaign attacked my “for-profit” book and rejected the notion that McMahon, as CEO of WWE, was “responsible for the personal choices of every person ever associated with WWE.” In her appearance this morning on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, McMahon offered more boilerplate talking points about her corporation’s good works and “evolving” practices.
As this politician and her billion-dollar enterprise spin away, are the renowned University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its doctors proud of what they are enabling?