SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Michelle Powell is attached to a device that provides therapeutic shocks to her back to ease her pain when getting around.
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Michelle Powell says that most of the time while she was recovering from the fungal meningitis, she stayed on the couch reading books, watching television or using the computer. She said she could barely move due to her infection.
Michelle Powell of Moneta is again living aspects of the life she had before a doctor injected contaminated medicine into her spine and she fell horribly ill last fall.
The fungal meningitis is, thankfully, gone, she said.
Now she can again attack the back pain that she saw a doctor for in the first place — the pain for which she got the shot that she contends turned out to contain a dangerous fungus.
Only now is the treatment of her ruptured disc getting back on track.
“My life really has been delayed, in addition to put in pain,” said Powell, 41, a homemaker and mother of three.
The U.S. health care industry shuddered last fall under complaints from hundreds of people sickened by steroids that are routinely injected to alleviate pain. Some 745 people in 20 states were confirmed to have fungal meningitis, and 58 died, five of them Virginians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers continue to be revised, with the next update due July 1.
Suspicion has fallen on one company, New England Compounding Center, and authorities have since linked steroids from New England’s Framingham, Mass., facility to the outbreak. The company has shut down and filed bankruptcy in December.
Southwest Virginia was heavily affected by the outbreak and is home to most or all of the 54 confirmed fungal meningitis cases in the state. Two busy local practices that administer spinal injections used New England’s product: Insight Imaging in Roanoke and New River Valley Surgery Center in Montgomery County.
Chris Sherrill, 36, a Roanoke windshield repair worker and father of two, said his infection came on fast and hit hard.
“I had severe neck pain, severe headaches, my arms and extremities were going numb and I had no idea what was going on,” he said.
Sherrill said he missed more than three months of work, and death seemed a real possibility, all resulting from a medical procedure that was supposed to help.
Roanoke attorney Patrick Fennell, who represents Powell and Sherrill, said he has seen evidence that thousands of people nationwide have undergone similar-sounding medical and personal ordeals and are believed to have a potential legal case, exceeding the 754 confirmed cases. Some individuals received injections, experienced debilitating symptoms and did not test positive for fungal meningitis, but were still affected, he said.
Earlier this year, a judge consolidated a mass of lawsuits brought by people who want compensation for pain, suffering and other damages in federal court in Boston for pre-trial measures.
Judge Dennis Saylor told all plaintiffs’ lawyers involved that he was appointing seven of them to “take charge of the pre-trial preparation of the cases in a consolidated fashion,” said Fennell, who belongs to that steering committee.
Fennell, who asked to be on the committee, said Crandall & Katt in Roanoke, where he works, represents about 40 clients with a claim against New England Compounding. He took the cases on a contingency basis, meaning the clients owe nothing up front and the lawyers handle their own expenses but are paid at the end if the client wins.
Fennell said he spends most of his working hours on aspects of the New England Compounding case, although the company’s bankruptcy prevents litigants from proceeding for the time being. It will be a year or more before the matter is resolved, he said.
Fennell expects fault will trace back to New England Compounding’s Framingham laboratory because of issues in its production area. He wrote in court papers that the drug given to Powell “was defective and unreasonably dangerous.”
Roanoke attorney Scott Sexton, who represents a group of his own clients, said in court papers that New England Compounding “brewed the toxins that were injected into the plaintiffs’ spinal canals. On this issue, there is simply no fact dispute.”
New England Compounding’s CEO declined to talk to Congress. The company has denied the allegations.
But New England is not the only company in the crosshairs.
Insight Imaging is a defendant, as are others.
“After buying the drug on the cheap, Insight pawned it off on these plaintiffs and many others as the FDA approved and FDA regulated Pfizer drug Depo-Medrol. For billing purposes, it falsely labeled the drug as a generic form of the same medicine produced by another FDA-approved and FDA-regulated manufacturer,” Sexton wrote.
Sexton’s firm, Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, represents 19 claimants who have sued Insight Imaging in Roanoke Circuit Court.
Those cases are not bundled with the actions against New England Compounding and are going forward. One case is scheduled for trial in April. These litigants are free to sue New England separately; some have and more are likely to later, Sexton said.
Insight and its related parties are contesting the allegations brought by plaintiffs.
The case could grow larger still. Fennell said the steering committee managing the litigation against New England Compounding is seeking other patients to sue and is focusing on such entities as vendors who sold materials or provided services to New England Compounding. For instance, the company that monitored air quality in the production area is under scrutiny, Fennell said.
The assets of New England Compounding alone look insufficient to satisfy all claims, Fennell said. In fact, he said, its assets are “not even close.”
Powell seeks $10 million.
In describing her experience, she recalls headaches so severe “the lights had to be shut out in my hospital room,” she said. At a point, her kidneys nearly shut down, she was told. Sickened in October, Powell recovered from the meningitis in April, she said.
“I have been healed after 10 — that I can remember — spinal taps,” Powell said.
That ordeal behind her, she is now scheduled for back surgery. By the time she has her operation, which is set for September, she will have endured her back problem for about an additional year as result of the bad shot, she said. It has delayed care for other illnesses as well, including rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that has nearly locked some of her joints while unchecked, she said.
Sherrill said he is also better, though not healed. His insurance paid for the recommended course of an expensive medicine for his fungal meningitis in 2012 and he felt better. But after an insurance change effective Jan. 1, his out-of-pocket cost rose to $5,500 for a 30-day supply. He didn’t have the money and didn’t get the medicine, he said.
Sherrill can go back to the doctor if he feels sick again. If that happens, though, it’s going to rekindle the heartbreaking fear experienced by his wife and his children, twins who are 7, he said.
“It’s really disrupted everything in my life, mentally, financially, just my whole –sorry, I lost the words — my whole outlook on life has changed,” he said.
Sherrill finds the most confounding part to be: It began in a doctor’s office.
“You think you’re going to go and get help and it puts you back in the hospital with severe, deadly disease,” he said.