By Anne-marie O'neill
August 02, 1999 12:00 PM

Douglas Hanson was dressing his children Olivia, 5, and Max, 2, for daycare on Oct. 1 last year when his morning routine was altered forever by a call from his wife’s gym. Shortly before 7 a.m., fashion designer Anne Marie Capati had collapsed during her regular workout at the Crunch Fitness health club in downtown Manhattan. “I assumed she had fainted,” says Hanson, 35, who lives in Huntington, N.Y., 44 miles east of New York City, “so I quickly put the kids into the truck to head into the city and visit Mommy to cheer her up.”

In fact, Capati had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. When Hanson arrived at Saint Vincents Hospital, he found his wife unconscious, hooked up to a ventilator and fighting for her life. “There are no words to describe what it’s like to see someone you love lying there like that,” he says. “It’s just a devastating, helpless feeling.”

And one that was destined to linger: By 9:30 p.m., Capati had died, leaving Hanson in a state of shock. He now blames his wife’s death on Thermadrene, an herbal supplement containing the natural stimulant ephedrine, which Capati had been taking for about three months, allegedly on the instruction of her personal trainer at Crunch. Often used as an athletic energy booster or a weight-loss aid, ephedrine can be lethal for people who suffer from hypertension—as Capati had for five years.

Hanson says his wife told him that her trainer, August Casseus, 40 (who has since left Crunch), was aware of her hypertensive condition, for which she was taking medication, when he allegedly urged her to take a daily dose of Thermadrene, along with four other nutritional supplements: Yohimbe, Whey Fuel, essential fatty acids (containing linolenic) and Lean Body Shake. “A trust was violated between Anne and the trainer and Anne and the gym,” he says. “She trusted them to be professionals dedicated to helping her to be more healthy, not to kill her.”

That claim is now the basis of a $320 million lawsuit before the New York State supreme court against Crunch, Casseus, a vitamin shop and five supplement makers—one that has shone an alarming light on the $14 billion-a-year industry that produces dietary supplements and the often-unqualified people who promote the supplements. (Crunch has denied liability. A spokeswoman, Dayna Crawford, says, “It is against the gym’s policy for any trainer to give nutritional advice.” Casseus could not be reached for comment.)

Consumer spending on natural supplements this year is almost double that of 1994, and sales continue to climb at a rate of 10 percent a year. Herbal products—such as St. John’s wort, echinacea and ginkgo biloba—are by far the most popular supplements, taken by some 60 million Americans a year. Yet a 1994 federal law allows these, along with hormonal supplements, vitamins and other substances I that can be found in foods, to be sold without regulation or testing. “Some have been proven to work quite well, but many more have either not been tested or proven to do very little,” says Donald Hensrud, assistant professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “There has to be a problem for the FDA to step in.”

The loss of three dozen lives would seem to qualify, and at least that many deaths have been linked to ephedrine since 1993 by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA, in fact, issued a proposal in 1997 urging Congress to impose stringent regulations on its use, but so far no action has been taken, due in part to intense lobbying by the industry. Although ephedrine, which also works as a decongestant, has been a staple of Chinese medicine for 5,000 years and has been used to treat asthma in the West for decades, “it is very potent,” says Varro Tyler, distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy (the study of natural drug products) at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “No one should take ephedrine without consulting a physician.”

That goes for all supplements, he adds. Innocent-sounding concoctions such as comfrey root, sassafras root and ginkgo biloba can cause problems either on their own or in combination with drugs or preexisting conditions (see table, page 106). “It’s a real mistake to assume that because something is natural it’s safe,” says Tyler.

Yet separate studies by the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic have shown that at least half of those patients taking herbal remedies don’t consult or even inform their doctors. Instead many take advice from friends, shop assistants, nutritionists and dieticians (who are licensed in only 27 states) or, apparently in the case of Anne Marie Capati, fitness coaches. “People put a lot of trust in their trainers,” says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. “[But] trainers should not be recommending supplement use.”

If Capati’s trust was misplaced, it wasn’t unusual. “I know Anne was not the only person who should have been smart enough to be more cynical but wasn’t,” says Douglas Hanson. Indeed, she was probably more aware of health issues than most, since both her parents—Nazario, 66, and Ana, 62, who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1959—are physicians. The older of two children, Capati grew up in Neilsville, Wis., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in electrical engineering in 1985.

She and Hanson met soon after while working at the U.S. Patents and Trademarks office in Washington, D.C. Both were disgruntled engineers. “We both knew we wanted to do something else,” says Hanson, who eventually chose law school while Capati attended the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.

Content in their new careers, they married in 1988, purchased their Huntington home three years later and had their first child, Olivia, in 1994. Soon after, Capati began working as a knitwear designer with Banana Republic. After Max’s arrival in 1997, she took on a demanding new job as design director for the Limited. Hanson happily scaled back his consulting business and held down the home front while his wife traveled up to two weeks a month. “We got into a good rhythm with our new life,” he says. “Anne was working really hard, but she felt it would pay off. Everything was going the way she wanted.”

She was equally dedicated to fitness. Having joined Crunch in February with the aim of losing a few pounds, Capati tried to work out most work days, setting off for the gym by 5:30 a.m. By October she had spent more than $3,200 on gym fees and training sessions. She also’ adhered strictly to a time-tabled diet, including the five supplements, which Casseus had allegedly written out for her. Hanson only learned the full extent of his wife’s herbal regimen after finding the notes in her gym bag 10 days after her death. “It literally made me nauseous,” he says, “and I wanted to make people aware. I want as many people as possible to know about this stuff and the fact that it can kill. This is something that could have been prevented. But even worse, it is something that was being promoted.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Alan Paul in Huntington

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]