Former NU doctor says he burned records

Jeff Stone

A former Northwestern doctor who treated Rashidi Wheeler before the football player’s death testified last week that he acted alone in destroying medical records from the last physical before Wheeler’s death.

Dr. Mark Gardner, former director of Searle Student Heath Service who resigned in April 2002, spoke in a closed-door deposition July 17 about burning the records, which might have shown whether Wheeler was taking supplements that could have led to his death.

Wheeler, a former defensive back, died Aug. 3, 2001 during an NU football practice from exercise-induced asthma, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner. Wheeler’s parents sued the university for improper care, but NU says Wheeler died from an irregular heartbeat caused by health supplements containing ephedra.

The medical records Gardner said he destroyed were from July 12, 2001, the last physical Gardner performed on Wheeler before the player’s death. Richard Donohue, Gardner’s lawyer, said that Gardner thought highly of Wheeler and that the player’s death caused Gardner to have a breakdown. Gardner said he drove to the Skokie Lagoons in Winnetka and cried for 1 1/2 hours before burning the records from Wheeler’s July 12 visit.

“There is no question that the doctor destroyed the records,” Donohue said.

Later that evening after burning the records, Gardner checked himself into a hospital where he was treated for three weeks, according to attorneys present at the closed-door deposition, which lasted about 6 1/2 hours.

Gardner said that he acted alone when burning the documents, a statement which NU supports.

“Dr. Gardner has confirmed that no one at Northwestern authorized, participated in or had prior knowledge (that Gardner was going to destroy the records),” said Alan Cubbage, NU vice president for university relations.

However, Wheeler’s parents, Linda Will and George Wheeler, see things differently. Will said she questions whether Gardner worked alone because on the day Gardner burned the records, he also met with Amy Mayber, NU’s associate general counsel, and with William Banis, vice president for student affairs.

“I believe he was ordered to destroy (the records), if in fact he did not give them to someone else to destroy,” Will said. “They did not allow us to question Gardner regarding what was revealed (July 12). Obviously they are trying to hide something.”

Tom Marszewski, a lawyer for Will, said Gardner claimed in the deposition that he had no reason for destroying records or Wheeler’s record in particular.

“Why would he pick that one record out?” Marszewski said.

Under Illinois law, the jury that hears the case will be instructed to infer that the July 12 medical records contained information that was damaging to Gardner and NU.

In maintaining that Wheeler’s death was caused by supplements and not exercise-induced asthma, NU has filed a third-party complaint against the manufacturers of Ultimate Orange, Ultimate Punch and Xenadrine RFA-1, supplements containing ephedra.

But manufacturers said supplements probably are not to blame.

“It is our position that Rashidi Wheeler died of an asthma attack and the death had nothing to do with alleged supplement usage,” said Jennifer Tomsak, an attorney for Phoenix Laboratories, which manufactured Xenadrine RFA-1. “There is not enough evidence yet relating to our product.”

Wheeler’s parents would be able to file a wrongful death suit against the manufacturers but would have to act before Aug. 3, when the two-year statute of limitations expires. But Will said she has no plans to take such action because she believes the medical examiner’s finding that the death was exercise induced.

“I do not feel that ephedra played a role,” she said. “I refuse to blame anyone other than Northwestern. Northwestern wants to blame everyone and everything from Dr. Gardner to ephedra for the fact that they wouldn’t provide help. (Wheeler) gave his life and they would not even call for help.”

At the deposition only lawyers for Wheeler’s parents got a chance to question Gardner. The rest of the deposition is not yet scheduled but is expected to occur in August.