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Yvonne Abraham

No patch for deepest cut

Adrianna Duffy and mother Leslie Niedner. Adrianna Duffy and mother Leslie Niedner. (Leslie Niedner photo)
By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / October 21, 2009

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CHELSEA - “You threw your life away.’’

That’s what Leslie Niedner’s guidance counselor at Boston Latin Academy told her when she got pregnant at 16.

She spent the next 18 years proving him wrong. After Adrianna was born, Leslie finished high school even though she was homeless her senior year. She got a degree in social work, then a master’s.

She gave Adrianna a cozy home and as many different experiences as she could afford: sports, art classes, trips to farms, and museums. The single mother, who worked with youth and battered women in Chelsea, was a walking testament to the values she instilled: The meaning of education; the importance of family; the power of determination.

“I didn’t ever want my child to be a statistic,’’ Leslie said.

She wasn’t. Adrianna got accepted at Concord Academy, where she excelled in academics and on the lacrosse team. She made sure she was on birth control - a contraceptive patch called Ortho Evra. This fall, she began her freshman year at Trinity College.

Then, on the morning of Sept. 28, Leslie got a call from the dean of students. I’m so sorry, he kept saying. Adrianna had collapsed in her dorm room. The 17-year-old died of a pulmonary embolism - a blood clot in her lung.

It made no sense. Adrianna was young, slim, athletic. How could this happen to such a healthy kid?

Leslie can’t remember who first asked whether Adrianna had been using a contraceptive patch. A few minutes online revealed dozens of similar horror stories. She’s now convinced that Ortho Evra, the target of thousands of lawsuits across the country, had taken her daughter.

“Why would they prescribe this?’’ Leslie asked, sitting at her dining table Monday. A slideshow of Adrianna played: The almond-eyed girl playing lacrosse, leaping in front of the Eiffel Tower, hugging friends on prom night.

That’s a good question.

Thousands of lawsuits have been brought against the makers of Ortho Evra, Johnson & Johnson, by women who used it and suffered heart attacks, strokes, or blood clots. At least 20 of the women named in the lawsuits died after using the patch. Though sales of the drug have plummeted by about 75 percent since word of its side effects spread, at least 2 million women still use it, and it’s still approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Johnson & Johnson has paid out $70 million to settle the lawsuits, according to a Bloomberg News investigation.

Two whistleblowers came forward to say Johnson & Johnson was downplaying the risks that came with the drug’s high estrogen levels. The company has dismissed their claims. Johnson & Johnson has changed the label on the drug three times to reflect its true estrogen levels, and to warn of possible side effects.

That’s not good enough for Sidney Wolfe, the director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, a D.C.-based consumer advocacy group. He cites research showing that the patch delivers far more estrogen than birth control pills, and that higher estrogen levels can double a woman’s risk for blood clots like the one that killed Adrianna.

“It’s needlessly dangerous,’’ he said.

A Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman delivered bloodless boilerplate yesterday.

“ORTHO EVRA provides a needed birth control option for women and physicians,’’ said Amy Firsching. “When used according to the FDA-approved label, ORTHO EVRA is a safe and effective method of hormonal birth control. ORTHO EVRA, like all methods of hormonal birth control, has benefits and risks.’’

Hundreds of others have settled their claims. Lord knows, Leslie could use the money. She is unemployed, and narrowly escaped foreclosure recently. But she wants to go to trial. She wants the company to defend its drug in court.

“I don’t care about struggling,’’ she said. “I want this drug off the market.’’

I wouldn’t bet against this woman.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com