VIP Patients: From Gehrig To Fawcett

Farrah Fawcett in 2006 and in background in 1977.
AP Photo
Dr. Barron H. Lerner is a professor of Medicine and Public Health at Columbia University Medical Center and the author of "When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients And How We Look At Medicine."


During the interview with Dr. LaPook, I spoke about Andy Warhol and Betty Ford, two famous patients who received less than optimal medical care. Here are a few other cases that I discuss in my book.

Lou Gehrig: The famous New York Yankee first baseman had a serious neurological disease but when he saw doctors between the 1938 and 1939 seasons, they missed it. One even thought Gehrig had a gall bladder problem and put him on a bland diet. I bet none of them did a complete neurological examination because it was inconceivable that the Iron Horse could be that sick. Tragically, he was.

Rita Hayworth: The beautiful actress and dancer had always had a drinking problem but in her mid-forties began losing her memory. On the stage, she forgot her lines and was asked to leave the cast of "Applause." Doctors told her family she was an alcoholic and had to stop drinking. If they had thought to do formal neuropsychiatric testing, they would have discovered that Hayworth had Alzheimer's Disease and had no chance of recovery. One amazing story: Hayworth was asked to be on the Carol Burnett Show in 1972 when, in retrospect, she already had Alzheimer's. Somehow the old pro managed to do a
song-and-dance number, "The Mutual Admiration society," with Burnett.
Watch it today and you can't even tell Hayworth was sick!

Mickey Mantle: The New York Yankee outfield great developed liver failure, felt to be due to years of drinking alcohol. That made him a transplant candidate. But Mantle also had advanced liver cancer and should never have gotten a new organ. Because of who he was however, he was put on the top of the list and got a new liver. Not surprisingly, the cancer quickly spread and Mantle died a victim not only of his disease, but his fame.

Farrah Fawcett: The actress, who recently died, had the bad luck of developing anal cancer. She underwent standard surgery and chemotherapy but it came back, meaning she was going to die. Fawcett chose to go to Germany six times for experimental treatment not approved in this country and of dubious scientific value. It can be argued that she had the right to do so. After all, she had no other options. But it is most likely that the treatments did not help. So she spent a lot of money and time traveling for unclear benefits.

As Dr. LaPook and I discussed, these cases can be cautionary tales for both famous and "ordinary" patients. Make sure your doctor treats you like any other patient and does all of the necessary testing. Make
sure there is one doctor guiding your care and not too many cooks.
And make sure your doctor gives you realistic prognoses based on the available scientific evidence.