Why this prominent personal injury lawyer gifted Brigham and Women's Hospital $2M

Fred Levin, a decorated lawyer best known for rewriting Florida's Medicaid Third-Party Recovery Act, donated $2 million to Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital for care he can't recall.

The 79-year-old attorney at Pensacola, Fla.-based Levin Papantonio first learned of his lung cancer treatment during an appointment with Raphael Bueno, MD, chief of the division of thoracic surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital. It was the second interaction Mr. Levin remembers with the surgeon.

"[Dr. Bueno] says, 'You're cancer free,'" Mr. Levin told Becker's Hospital Review. "And I remember telling him, 'I didn't even know I had cancer.'"

What Mr. Levin also didn't remember was why his children believed Dr. Bueno's care was the deciding factor in Mr. Levin's positive prognosis — and turned what could have been litigation into a $2 million gift.

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Mr. Levin wasn't Dr. Bueno's average patient. A few of Mr. Levin's life acclamations include helping retrieve billions from the tobacco industry to cover cigarette smoking-related illnesses, managing the boxing career of Roy Jones Jr. from 1989 to 2003 and being inducted as chief of Ghana in 1999.

Several months before Dr. Bueno told Mr. Levin he was cancer free, Mr. Levin suffered a grand mal seizure. It was Jan. 6, 2016, and Mr. Levin was in his hometown of Pensacola.

The culprit was a brain tumor. Physicians at the University of Florida in Gainesville removed the mass. They determined the tumor was metastasized stage 4 lung cancer.

The diagnosis put Mr. Levin on a flight to Boston and into his first interaction with Dr. Bueno. During the 30-minute consultation, Dr. Bueno scheduled minimally invasive surgery to remove the lower lobe of Mr. Levin's right lung.

But Martin Levin, Mr. Levin's son, knew something was wrong with his father when he visited Mr. Levin days before the surgery.

"He was not coherent," Mr. Martin Levin, who is also an attorney at Levin Papantonio, told Becker's. His father was transported to the emergency department at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where CT scans and other tests proved inconclusive. Additional screenings lacked signs of seizure activity.

Brigham and Women's Hospital moved to release Mr. Levin. But Mr. Martin Levin and his sister Kim Brielmayer, who arrived in Boston a few hours earlier, vocalized their concern that Mr. Levin was experiencing seizures despite the negative test results. The Levins' apprehension built as their father "was getting worse and worse," falling into intensive unit care delirium, Mr. Martin Levin said.

The family called Dr. Bueno while contemplating another move.

"We're taking him to the University of Florida," Mr. Martin Levin remembered deciding. "[We're] getting the medical jet, we can't do this anymore."

Then Dr. Bueno called back.

"From my conversation with Mr. Levin's son, he said his father was experiencing seizures and his health was declining for a part of that time," Dr. Bueno told Becker's. He reconnected with the family within 15 minutes of their initial call and immediately began working with the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital to "design an effective plan for his care."

Mr. Levin was soon admitted to Brigham and Women's Hospital, according to his son, where an electroencephalogram found Mr. Levin was experiencing seven seizures a minute.

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Three weeks after Mr. Levin was admitted to Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dr. Bueno determined he could safely remove the right lower lobe of Mr. Levin's lung.

The Levins were hesitant.

"We were at our wits' end and frazzled," Mr. Martin Levin said. Meanwhile, Mr. Levin remained unaware of his care. But, his family "decided to trust [Dr. Bueno], since he showed personal care and attention."
 
Dr. Bueno removed the lobe, and Mr. Levin's health began to ascend. Ultimately, Dr. Bueno determined chemotherapy and radiation weren't appropriate.

Today, nearly two years later, Mr. Levin remains cancer-free. His children credit Dr. Bueno.

"This doctor may not have saved your life, but he certainly extended your life," Mr. Levin said, quoting his children. They petitioned Mr. Levin to do something for Dr. Bueno.

Enter Mr. Levin's $2 million donation to Brigham and Women's Hospital. The Levin family's recollection of how Dr. Bueno transformed their frustration into appreciation inspired the Fredric G. Levin Distinguished Chair in Thoracic Surgery and Lung Cancer Research. As part of the gift, the sitting chair will visit Pensacola to conduct an annual seminar for the next 10 years.

The chair's first recipient? Dr. Bueno.

"This case is illustrative of the need for a truly patient-centered approach," Dr. Bueno said. "There is a depth and breadth of expertise available at BWH, and by bringing together the right people — a multidisciplinary team that included both medical and surgical experts — we could provide a personalized and holistic approach to our patient's care. This case reminds us that we must collaborate to address the unique needs of each patient."

Quint Studer, founder of the Studer Group and friend of the Levins, traveled from Pensacola to Boston for the chair designation. He told Becker's Mr. Levin's story is a case study all hospitals should emulate.

"This is a hospital and a physician who took what could be a litigation issue, with a top-ranked litigating attorney and his law firm, and turned it into a great clinical outcome and a $2 million dollar gift," he said. "Organizations could learn from how Brigham and Women's [Hospital] handled it. Which is, if there's an issue, you admit it. You don't hide it. You solve it."

Mr. Martin Levin said Dr. Bueno's willingness to listen to his family and take action made the primary difference in his father's care.

"You should always listen to the family, the friends who know this individual best. Even when the medicine seems contrary. It's not that you always go with them, but you have to take a pause and say … they have the best interest of this patient at heart." 

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