A Canadian sports doctor sought out by superstar athletes for help in healing from injuries avoided prison Friday for bringing unapproved and mislabelled drugs into the United States for house calls.
Dr. Anthony Galea of Toronto was sentenced to time served Friday in U.S. District Court in Buffalo. The sentence amounted to a single day, that of Galea's arrest.
The healing specialist, who has helped Tiger Woods and other big-name athletes come back from injuries, pleaded guilty to the federal charge in July. Prosecutors have not publicly identified the athletes.
Galea, 52, apologized to the United States, his family, the FBI and Homeland Security during the sentencing hearing in which he and his lawyers said his zeal to help injured athletes had made him careless about the rules.
Galea wasn't licensed to practise in the United States when he made more than 150 trips across the border to treat professional football and baseball players in 13 U.S. cities. Galea was widely known for a blood-spinning injury treatment, but prosecutors said some patients received human growth hormone, which is banned by major sports.
"Because of my overzealousness in trying to heal injuries I've caused a lot of pain to the ones I love," Galea told U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara, his voice breaking.
The judge said he was moved by more than 120 letters of support from peers and patients, some of whom described being treated by Galea at no charge and others who credited him with healing injuries that other doctors could not. Arcara compared him to the fictional "Marcus Welby," the kindly and unorthodox doctor from the 1970s television show.
"It's mind boggling to me that someone with this gift wouldn't take extra steps to ensure he's in compliance with the laws of this country," the judge said.
He said Galea had only himself to blame for his legal troubles.
'Pattern of deception'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Campana had sought a prison term within the sentencing range of eight to 14 months, saying Galea had engaged in "a pattern of deception" over two years and put athletes at risk of being in violation of rules.
Galea declined to talk to reporters after being sentenced. Arcara also imposed a year of supervised release but said Galea would not be supervised during the period because he lives in Canada. During that year, however, he cannot enter the United States without the government's permission. His plea agreement also required him to forfeit $275,000 US.
Galea faces similar charges in Canada, but his lawyers expect those will be resolved without prison time as well.
Galea administered what's known as platelet-rich plasma therapy to some athletes — a treatment used to speed healing that involves extracting blood from patients and re-injecting just the plasma — including Woods and Canada’s world figure skating champion Patrick Chan.
It's a technique that is legal in sport and one in which Galea is a pioneer. Before the Vancouver Olympics, Galea used this treatment on Chan, who remains a defender of the Toronto doctor.
In the procedure, a patient's blood is extracted, spun in a centrifuge to separate the platelet-rich plasma from the red blood cells, and then the concentrated platelets is reinjected into the injured area.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Galea I wouldn’t be having all the success I’m having right now,” Chan told CBC Sports on Thursday. “He helped me with my calf. I found out right before the [2010 Vancouver] Olympic Games that I had a torn calf muscle on the outside of my left calf.
“It healed in a week-and-a-half to two weeks, which is an injury that usually takes maybe four weeks. So it speeded up the recovery. He definitely was the greatest guy to take me in right away, he knew how urgent it was and he did an amazing job at it. He definitely knew what he was doing.”
Galea's guilty plea last summer to a count of bringing in misbranded drugs — those not approved or not properly labelled —eliminated the possibility that the names of professional athletes he treated would be revealed. Galea was required to co-operate with federal authorities looking into his practice.
His lawyers, Mark Mahoney and Brian Greenspan, declined to say after the sentencing Friday what that co-operation involved.
"Whatever was said was consistent with his requirement as a physician to protect his patients," Greenspan said.
The lawyers bristled at past media reports suggesting Galea had been involved in performance enhancing treatments, but acknowledged that some patients had received the banned substance HGH. They would not say whether any current athletes were among the estimated one per cent of patients who received the hormone, which they said was used in minuscule amounts as part of a homeopathic cocktail injected into injured tissue.
To be performance enhancing, HGH would have to be given in much larger quantities over a long period of time, Greenspan said.
Among supporters in the courtroom Friday were Tie Domi, who played for the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs, and former patient Mark McKoy, a Canadian track athlete who won a gold medal in hurdles at the 1992 Summer Olympics. Domi also wrote a letter on Galea's behalf, crediting him with diagnosing and treating his then-11-year-old son Max's fractured hip after other doctors could find nothing wrong.
Max Domi now plays for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
During his plea hearing in July, prosecutors said Galea's patients included NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes and retired running back Jamal Lewis, who were not accused of any use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The New York Mets' Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran also acknowledged talking to federal authorities during the investigation, but said they did not receive HGH. Golfing pro Woods acknowledged being treated by Galea, but also said he hadn't received performance enhancers.
The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez told Major League Baseball officials in April 2010 that he didn't receive performance-enhancing drugs from Galea after the doctor told The Associated Press he had prescribed anti-inflammatories for him.
Galea became the focus of Canadian and U.S. authorities' attention in September 2009, when his assistant, Mary Anne Catalano, was arrested at the border in Buffalo with a small quantity of human growth hormone, Actovegin and vials of foreign homeopathic drugs.
Catalano also avoided prison after pleading guilty to lying to border agents. Galea apologized to Catalano and her family.With files from Teddy Katz