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Wrestler Hulk Hogan sues Laser Spine Institute, alleging unnecessary surgeries

Published Jan. 15, 2013

After slamming into wrestling mats around the world for more than 30 years, Hulk Hogan developed the same complaint as many middle-aged Americans:

Lower-back pain.

So in 2009, the superstar professional wrestler — whose real name is Terry Bollea — went to three Tampa Bay area physicians who recommended major back surgery. Then, on a neighbor's recommendation, Bollea walked into Tampa's Laser Spine Institute without an appointment.

There, he says, doctors recommended treatments that they said would be "minimally invasive" with a quicker recovery and better success than the surgery recommended by the other surgeons.

Hogan chose Laser Spine Institute, which he now says performed a series of ineffective procedures costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Laser Spine's treatment delayed his return to the ring and kept him from a lucrative match with top-draw John Cena, said Bollea's attorney Wil Florin.

"The repeated additional but unnecessary and ineffective surgeries performed by defendants resulted in significant bone loss and increased spinal instability," says the lawsuit, which also names doctors James St. Louis, Kevin L. Scott and Zoltan Bereczki as defendants.

Overall, the suit claims, Bollea lost more than $50 million in past and potential income.

The lawsuit claims Laser Spine should have known its outpatient treatments wouldn't work, given Bollea's condition. Three other area surgeons had recommended open lumbar spinal fusion surgery, which Laser Spine does not offer.

Laser Spine declined specific comment on the suit, issuing a prepared statement saying it "cares about its patients and their outcomes, and is proud to have helped thousands of patients achieve a better quality of life by delivering optimal surgical outcomes." It urged people to learn about their procedures at laserspineinstitute.com/get-the-facts.

• • •

Chronic back pain affects just about everyone as they age, and Americans spend billions to solve it. But there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

Dr. Brett Taylor is a spine surgeon at the Orthopedic Center of St. Louis and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons who is not involved in the lawsuit or Bollea's treatment.

He says minimally invasive surgeries can offer advantages such as less blood loss and time in the hospital. But "not every back problem can be treated as effectively with a minimally invasive option. That is very patient-specific and very problem-specific," he said.''

The best surgeons, he noted, offer a range of treatment options. "They say if your only tool is a hammer, every problem you deal with is treated with a nail. You want to be able to have a multitude of different tools so that you don't have to force-fit your treatment to that situation," he said.

Bollea, who is now 59, visited a board-certified spine surgeon in Safety Harbor in February 2009, complaining of low-back pain and numbness that had grown worse over 11 years. The doctor recommended an "open multilevel lumbar laminectomy and fusion."

Also that month, Bollea went to a University of South Florida physician and professor of neurosurgery, who recommended "open lumbar spinal fusion surgery." Another USF doctor recommended the same surgery.

Bollea scheduled the fusion surgery, but had second thoughts after a neighbor recommended visiting Laser Spine.

"(Dr. James) St. Louis convinced Bollea not to undergo the previously agreed-to open procedure by telling him in no uncertain terms that he 'did not need a fusion,' that he could 'fix' him, and that he would be back to his normal wrestling activities quickly after being treated at Laser Spine," the lawsuit states.

By December 2010, after several Laser Spine procedures did not yield relief, Bollea went back to USF physicians for surgery. He returned to his "professional activities" three months later.

But he'd spent money on surgeries that didn't help, lost money on wrestling opportunities and suffered bone loss under Laser Spine's care, the suit says.

• • •

Bollea read an extensive article about Laser Spine Institute published on Bloomberg.com in 2011 that questioned the company's marketing tactics and told of patients whose procedures provided little to no relief.

Dr. Donald Corenman, a Colorado spine surgeon who was quoted in the Bloomberg article, told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that he has seen at least a dozen former Laser Spine Institute patients from around the country whose problems weren't solved by their treatments.

"I have seen that sometimes some of (Laser Spine's) diagnostic skills are not as good as they could be," Corenman said.

Corenman also questioned Laser Spine's marketing tactics, which he called "very much out of the mode of typical medical care and delivery.''

Bollea actually was part of marketing efforts by Laser Spine, which used an autographed photo of him in advertising. His suit says he signed it for a clinic employee, but never agreed to be "an endorser of the services provided by Laser Spine."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger@tampabay.com or Letitia Stein at lstein@tampabay.com.

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