January 29, 1995 in Nation/World

Norplant Put Her ‘Through Hell’ Area Women Join Lawsuit Against Manufacturer

By The Spokesman-Review

Tina Ayotte is getting used to the question, “What happened to your arm?”

Now she’s telling her story to a Seattle law firm that is recruiting dozens of Spokane women to pursue a class action lawsuit against the maker of Norplant.

The birth control capsules inserted in her upper arm caused scarring when a doctor struggled to remove them, said Ayotte, 28. She also blames hair loss, acne and heavy menstrual bleeding on the implant.

Ralph Pittle, a Seattle attorney with Medical Legal Consultants of Washington, said he’s heard similar complaints from about 675 Washington women.

“They are hoping this will get the manufacturer to tell doctors what is really going on so that the doctors will not dismiss their complaints as the whining of neurotic women,” he said.

“The doctors have been saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s normal, it will go away, it’s all in your head,”’ Pittle said. “That’s what they’re hoping will change.”

The firm recently advertised a toll-free number for women who have had problems with Norplant, available since 1991.

The lawyers plan to add those women to a class action against Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories. The suit was filed in Beaumont, Texas.

Wyeth-Ayerst says nearly 1 million American women use Norplant, which contains a synthetic hormone. Eighty percent continue to use it after a year.

The company says it issues adequate warnings about possible side effects, which are reversible once the implants are removed. Commonly reported problems include headache, nausea, dizziness, nervousness and removal difficulties.

Wyeth-Ayerst stands by the safety of Norplant, which was tested for more than 20 years, according to the company.

Ayotte, a mother of two, said she chose Norplant for birth control in December 1993, after her youngest son was born.

She liked the idea of implanting six matchstick-size capsules in her arm, then forgetting about it for five years until it needed to be removed or replaced.

“It was like a short-term alternative,” said Ayotte, who dislikes taking birth control pills every day. “You didn’t have to think about it.”

Instead, she said, she thought about it frequently because she suffered side effects until she had it removed five months later.

Even then, said Ayotte, it took her doctor more than 1 hours to remove the device instead of 20 minutes, as expected.

“If I’d known before, I’d have never done it,” said Ayotte. “The risk is great and it puts your family through hell.”

One capsule had moved inside her arm and the doctor had to make a second incision to remove it, she said.

“Scar tissue surrounds the implant and doctors can’t retrieve it as easily as the company led them to believe,” said Pittle.

Diane Earle, another Spokane woman who plans to join the suit, said her doctor persuaded her to try Norplant after she asked for a tubal ligation.

The doctor thought she might regret the permanent decision at such a young age, said Earle, 24, who has three children.

Since getting the implant, Earle says she has severe headaches, pelvic pains and mood swings.

“I’m dizzy like every day, it seems like,” she said. “Ever since I’ve had this thing put in, everything’s just gone downhill.”

Even worse, said Earle, she doesn’t have $200 to get the implant removed.

Norplant has been a popular birth control choice among Planned Parenthood patients, although it is recently losing ground to an injection method known as “The Shot,” said nurse practitioner Sharon Hebner.

The Depo-Provera injection, a synthetic hormone that works by preventing eggs from ripening, must be renewed every three months.

From July 1992 to June 1993, Planned Parenthood doctors implanted 19 Norplant devices. They implanted 64 more from July 1993 to June 1994.

“I’ve only seen minor complaints,” said Hebner. “I’d say half the people love their Norplants and half took them out.”

Theresa Thibodeau, a Spokane woman who has had Norplant for three years, said her doctor warned her about the side effects from the start.

“I feel that it’s one of the best birth controls I’ve been on,” said Thibodeau, 23, adding she’s had few problems.

One Spokane woman has filed a separate lawsuit in Spokane County Superior Court against a group of Spokane doctors.

Lisa Ann Owens’ complaint says she was never told of risks before the implant. When she decided to have it removed, the doctor “continuously poked, pushed, pulled and yanked” on Owens’ arm, according to the suit file last November.

While Owens is suing her doctors, Pittle said the class action involving 40 to 50 Spokane women is against the manufacturer.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed around the country against WyethAyerst Laboratories.

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