Archive for March, 2010

WWE Medical Team Bios — 5 Out of 8 Are from Pitt Med Center

The bios of the professionals on the World Wrestling Entertainment medical team are at the company website. See http://corporate.wwe.com/documents/MEDICALTEAMBIOS28.pdf.

Five of the eight men — they are all men — are from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. I have previously mentioned three doctors: Joseph Maroon (neurology and neurosurgery — WWE’s medical director), Bryan Donohue (cardiology), and Vijay Bahl (endocrinology).  The two other UPMC personnel with WWE affiliations are Mark Lovell (a Ph.D. in neuropsychology who is involved with the concussion testing) and Thomas Sisk (a sports medicine specialist).

I’m still waiting to hear from someone at UPMC about acquiring the full text of its ethics policy and interpreting its application to the relationship between these UPMC people and WWE.

Irv Muchnick

WWE’s Docs Governed by ‘Private’ Pitt Med Center Ethics Policy

This blog is exploring how a cluster of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physicians came to join the medical staff of World Wrestling Entertainment, the company of Connecticut U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon.

In my view, these three doctors – WWE medical director and neurologist Joseph Maroon, cardiologist Bryan Donohue, and endocrinologist Vijah Bahl – have done little except give political cover to this billion-dollar publicly traded corporation and to the McMahon family, which runs and profits from it.

At the moment, I am especially interested in Dr. Donohue, who is supposed to be supervising cardiovascular screening of WWE talent under a 2007 revision of the company Wellness Policy. In December 2009, six months after being fired by WWE for refusing to go to drug rehab, wrestler Eddie “Umaga” Fatu died at age 36 of a massive coronary brought on by a toxic mix of prescription medications. Fatu’s autopsy showed that he had an enlarged heart.

In addition, Dr. Donohue’s overall portfolio of outside business interests may be a bit too entrepreneurial for my blood. Leveraging his medical credentials, he recently started a hype-happy company in the largely unregulated supplement industry.

In 2008 the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center published a new ethics policy, which has been widely praised for controlling the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies on the clinical decisions of doctors.

However, when I viewed the text of the policy online, I noticed it included links to general University of Pittsburgh guidelines for faculty conflicts of interest — and those links did not work.

Yesterday I spoke to Frank Raczkiewicz, a UPMC media relations director, about getting access to the blocked documents. Raczkiewicz referred me to Dr. Barbara Barnes, the UPMC vice president who authored the ethics policy.

Dr. Barnes told me that the links within the UPMC ethics policy to the University of Pittsburgh policies were designed not to be publicly accessible because the latter are “internal” documents.

In our phone conversation yesterday, Dr. Barnes did not have time to get into the substance of my reporting on the relationship between UPMC and WWE. I emailed her with my contact information but did not hear back.

Later yesterday I sent around to all the principals an email with the following text:

TO:

Ed Patru / Linda McMahon for Senate campaign, media relations

Robert Zimmerman / World Wrestling Entertainment, media relations

Bryan C. Donohue, M.D.

Joseph C. Maroon, M.D.

Barbara E. Barnes, M.D. / University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Vice President of Continuing Medical Education, Contracts and Grants and Intellectual Property

Frank Raczkiewicz / University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, media relations

I am about to post to my blog a report headlined, “Umaga Autopsy Turns Focus to Linda McMahon’s WWE Cardio Program and Docs.” The post — to which I invite all of your comments (see my contact information below) — includes the following points:

* The autopsy report on wrestler Eddie “Umaga” Fatu — a WWE performer until six months before his December 2009 death from a heart attack caused by prescription drug toxicity — showed that he had an enlarged heart. This raises questions about the cardiovascular screening under the WWE Wellness Policy. Dr. Maroon is WWE’s medical director. Dr. Donohue is the consulting cardiologist.

* Dr. Maroon, Dr. Donohue, and a third member of the WWE medical team, Dr. Vijay Bahl, have UPMC practices. This raises questions about the UPMC ethics policy that took effect in February 2008.

* The UPMC ethics policy seems primarily aimed at the issue of pharmaceutical companies’ inducements to doctors, which can compromise patient care. However, there are also general conflict-of-interest issues, as well as specific ones involving physicians’ relationships with the non-regulated supplement industry. Dr. Donohue is a co-founder of a supplement company, which he aggressively promotes in media appearances. Dr. Maroon has written a book touting the same supplement and is cited prominently on its website.

* Dr. Maroon’s professional associations in pro football — as a doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers and as a member of the National Football League’s concussion policy committee — are also noted. I point out the case of Richard Rydze, yet another UPMC physician who was dropped by the Steelers after he was found to have purchased huge quantities of growth hormone from the Internet gray-market dealer Signature Pharmacy. I also review my previously published reports that Dr. Maroon’s NFL concussion work has been criticized as too passive, and that he and WWE last year gave ESPN misleading information about his access to the postmortem brain studies of WWE performer Chris Benoit, who committed double murder/suicide in 2007.

Irvin Muchnick

WNPR’s John Dankosky Blogs About Having Linda McMahon on ‘Where We Live’

“McMahon on Steroids, PG Programming, Health Care, and Emanuel”

http://whereweblog.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/mcmahon-on-steroids-pg-programming-health-care-and-emanuel/

Oh, Chair Shots Are OK — Just Not to the Head

Regarding the previous post, a helpful fan points out to your humble blogger, “WWE policy only bans chair shots to the head.  I think Hart diligently avoided hits to the head.”

Well, you got me there. I can see the steam emitting from the nostrils of Jerry S. McDevitt, Esq. Sorry.

Of course, Vince McMahon told CNN in 2007 that chair shots to the head had been banned, but the chairman’s words didn’t seem to get codified in iron-clad company “policy” until January of this year. Maybe in the interim wrestlers were diligently trying, but failing, to land solid soap-opera blows to the back.

Irv Muchnick

Linda McMahon’s 64-Year-Old Husband Takes 14 Chair Shots at WrestleMania

Presumably with the input of its crack medical team from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Linda McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment recently banned “chair shots,” whereby wrestlers bonk each other with metal folding chairs.

But when you gotta do it, you gotta do it. To blow off his dozen-year-long feud with Bret “The Hitman” Hart at Sunday’s WrestleMania in Arizona, Linda’s husband Vince found himself on the receiving end of more than a dozen chair shots. (I counted 14. Until the WWE intellectual property vigilantes take it down, the video can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBGABEc7lqo.)

The evil “Mr. McMahon” got his, and the fans went home happy.

Evidently role model Vince is no more subject to the chair shot ban than he is to steroid-testing under the WWE “Wellness Policy.” When asked about the latter by the staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in December 2007, he explained, “I’m 62 [years old], not 26.”

Irv Muchnick

Linda McMahon Audio from Connecticut Public Radio’s ‘Where We Live’

The podcast of Linda McMahon’s appearance this morning on WNPR (Connecticut Public Radio), Where We Live with host John Dankosky is at http://www.cpbn.org/node/19682.

At around the 12-minute mark, Dankosky plays a clip of his interview with me last week, and McMahon responds.

Where We Live plans to air Dankosky’s entire 18-minute interview with me on a program in the near future.

Irv Muchnick

Umaga Autopsy Turns Focus to Linda McMahon’s WWE Cardio Program and Docs

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?

Irv Muchnick


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March 2010
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