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Tom Petters' pituitary-gland tumor: reason for leniency or just another fraud?

As a physician writer, I'm very hesitant to speculate about the medical problems of public figures. Famous or infamous, they deserve their privacy, and besides, medicine is so complicated that making diagnoses based on scattered press reports is akin to divination by tossing chicken bones.

But then along came Tom Petters' lawyers' plea for leniency on the basis that their client — who is facing sentencing after being convicted of 20 counts of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy — is suffering from a pituitary-gland tumor. A Star Tribune article yesterday quoted court documents submitted by Petters' defense attorneys:

"The long-term prognosis for Mr. Petters' condition is bleak; he faces the risk of blindness. The tumor is not growing at the moment but cannot be ignored."

A review of this quote among a handful of my colleagues who diagnose and treat pituitary gland tumors — neurosurgeons, neurologists, endocrinologists — elicited a common clinical impression: laughter with hints of deviancy. That's like saying because he's alive, one day he's going to die, quipped a neurologist.

Tom Petters
Sherburne County Sheriff
Tom Petters

It's not that pituitary-gland tumors are something to laugh at. The gland sits deep in the brain and releases hormones that help control lactation, thyroid function, and sex hormones. Because of the gland's proximity to the optic nerves (the nerves that give us vision), a pituitary tumor can indeed lead to blindness if it grows large enough to cause compression. A tumor that is hyperfunctioning and putting out too much hormone can cause serious medical problems.

But MRI scans and autopsy studies show that up to 10 percent of the population have small pituitary adenomas (a benign, nonmalignant growth). Most of those are small, less than 1 centimeter, and most cause no symptoms — which is why they are commonly referred to as "incidentalomas."

If a tumor isn't secreting excess hormone, the patient can be simply observed. And even if the tumor is growing, it can be periodically monitored by MRI and appropriate therapy rendered when and if needed.

From the statement given by his defense attorneys, Petters appears to have an incidentaloma: a stable tumor that isn't growing and doesn't require medical therapy or surgery.

So is his appeal for leniency on that basis just another fraud? From this distance it sure looks like the latter, but U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle will be the one to pass judgment on that. One thing can be said for certain: Petters' brain carries pathological features.

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Comments (7)

Good article. Thanks for providing this information.

By the way, dear readers, I'm dying too. Please send money. If everyone digs deep and chips in a few thousand or more, I'll be all set.

Rebecca, is this a post-haste kind of death, or do I have time to scrape together some money?

Craig: Perhaps the pituitary is the seat of all these Ponzi schemes. After all Carlo (aka Charles) Ponzi was barely 5 feet tall and weighed 130 lbs- growth hormone deficiency? Any thoughts.

Is that true Adrian? I had no idea where the phrase Ponzi scheme came from, but it's a tantalizing hypothesis. Makes me wonder how big a guy Petters is.

Yes, that's accurate for the phrase "Ponzi scheme"....

AND - I have a relative who has a pituitary tumor, so I called her asking about blindness and paralysis, and her response was "Sounds like he's trying to perpetrate another fraud here..." Dr. Bowron is entirely correct, according to her experience, and if Petters gets normal medical care he'll live the same life as anyone else. This is not a reason to keep him out of custody. Look what he has done to others, and I'm sure some of his victims were in poor health....

Thank you for this article! I, too, have a pituitary microadenoma (although I have never perpetrated fraud of any sort). When I first heard this story, I thought perhaps I had been too casual about my extra bit of self growing on my pituitary gland, but I my second thought was that Tom Petters was again up to his old scheming tricks. If only other news organizations had done a tiny bit of investigating before being defrauded!

Craig, thank you for you interest in my upcoming death and interest in sending money. I hope others among our dear readers follow your good example.

Please do not delay too long in sending money. You know how deaths are. They could happen at any time.