TRAVERSE CITY — What started as a pinched nerve in her back on a camping trip last July has turned Theresa Hall’s life into a painful nightmare with no end in sight.
Hall’s back pain continued to flare throughout the summer, and, in August, a doctor at Neuromuscular and Rehabilitation Associates of Northern Michigan injected her with a steroid shot to ease the pain. It didn’t work, so she had a second shot, and then a third on September 26 — the same day the manufacturer recalled the tainted steroid medicine.
Hall was advised in an October letter that the steroid shot could have been tainted and to watch out for symptoms.
“I didn’t get any better, and as time went on, the pain got worse,” Hall said. “My toes went numb, my calf was numb, it hurt to walk, to stand. Any movement at all was really bad.”
In late December doctors took an MRI of Hall’s spine and ordered her to the emergency room the same day. They had diagnosed a fungal infection. Since then she’s been on an odyssey of hospitalizations, testing, and medications. Adding to the stress are hospital bills of more than $100,000.
Fortunately, insurance pays the lion’s share of a $6,400-a-month antibiotic. But the medicine makes her nauseous, confused, forgetful, and hallucinatory. So much so, that Hall, a former bus driver and dispatcher, has lost hope of working. Doctors can’t even assure her the antibiotic will wipe out the infection, she said.
“They can’t get (the fungus) out because it’s in my spine,” she said. “I’m so depressed. And I’m angry. I’m so angry it happened to so many people, not just me. For what? Greed?”
Hall is one of 50 area patients, who are working with attorneys Mark Dancer and Daniel Meyers. The number grows every day, said Dancer, whose Traverse City firm has filed two suits against the medicine’s manufacturer, New England Compounding Center, and plans to file dozens more.
“These people really deserve something,” Dancer said. “They went to the clinic because they’re in pain and had poison injected into them. They still don’t know the ramifications.”
All 50 patients received injections at Neuromuscular and Rehabilitation, according to Grand Traverse County health officials. The clinic “faces potential liability,” Dancer said.
Laura Alexander, the clinic’s office manager, said its attorney advised them not to comment.
“It’s not because we’re unwilling,” she said. “We are just trying to do everything by the book at this point.”
Calls to the clinic’s attorney, Richard Zuckerman, were not returned.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, interviewed in Traverse City Tuesday, said he expects the Michigan Court of Appeals to approve his request for a four-county grand jury within the next couple weeks. The criminal investigation will focus on the New England Compounding Center, the company accused in dozens of civil lawsuits of producing the contaminated steroids.
The steroid medicine is a compound drug and isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The state of Michigan oversees regulation and requires compounded medication to be purchased, packaged, dispensed and labeled by individual prescription, Schuette said.
The investigation will determine, in part, whether the four Michigan clinics purchased the tainted medicine in bulk and, if not, whether they are legally culpable, Schuette said.
Mark Totten, a Michigan State University law professor, pointed out there would be no legal recourse if the compound drug was regulated and approved by the Federal Drug Administration.
That’s because the Michigan legislature gave pharmaceutical companies complete immunity from lawsuits that involve FDA-approved drugs in 1995. Ironically, he said, Schuette was among 13 state senators who led the charge for the law.
“If we’re talking about his response to meningitis, he’s done what every AG should do,” said Totten, who runs www.AGforUs, a website critical of the attorney general.
“But in the larger issue of protecting citizens from harm, he has a miserable record,” Totten said. “This law is one of a kind in the country and has left victims helpless. He should be pounding on the legislators’ door every day demanding they repeal the law.”
Schuette did not return a call asking for a response.
In related news, CBS News reported that owners of New England Compounding Center took $16 million in wages last year before the company filed bankruptcy. Schuette said the grand jury should “closely review” if the money is recoverable by victims.
Hall was enraged to also learn in a recent 60 Minutes report that company officials shrugged off warnings of contamination.
Hall’s husband remains her lifeline in the midst of these troubles. Their house has become a prison of sorts, Jeff Hall said.
“I get her out every chance I can,” said Jeff Hall, who himself is partially paralyzed.
“He’s learning me pretty good,” Theresa Hall said. “If he sees me in the morning with my hair done and dressed, he knows I’m having a good day.”
MICHIGAN AT EPICENTER OF OUTBREAK
A tainted steroid used in spinal injections to relieve pain has killed 53 people nationally and sickened 733.
Michigan is the hardest hit state with 259 infections and 15 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Only 7 of the 50 cases have been diagnosed as spinal meningitis. The others include: two with strokes; 28 with spinal or para-spinal infections; 13 with joint infections. Two Grand Traverse County residents, ages 73 and 80, received steroid injections and later died, said Wendy Trute, health officer of the Grand Traverse County Health Department.