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Sister Joins Vioxx Suit After Death of Brother

Endwell woman among scores here suing Merck

Nov 1, 2004 | Press & Sun-Bulletin

Lori Dufresne was sitting in her doctor's office with her developmentally disabled older brother on Sept. 30 when a CNN broadcast announced the recall of the prescription pain-killer Vioxx.

The drug was being voluntarily pulled from the shelves because a study showed an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients who took the drug.

Dufresne's 43-year-old brother, Frank Spencer, who'd come to live with his 38-year-old sister and her family in Endwell three years earlier, had been on the medication for six months to treat muscular pain, which it effectively did, his sister says. She spoke to his doctor that day, and Spencer's medication was immediately changed.

The following night, Spencer came home from a friend's house about 10 p.m. He pulled on his favorite boxer shorts-the ones with smiley faces on them and slid between his Blues Clues bed sheets after his sister said good night.

When Dufresne came into her brother's bedroom the next morning to wake him for a ride to Broome-Tioga ARC where he worked, his foot was cold to the touch.

Spencer, who'd gone trick-or-treating as a werewolf the year before with his nieces and nephews, did not live to enjoy another Halloween. He died sometime during the night of Oct. 2 of cardiac failure, a coroner ruled.

"It was such a shock because he hadn't been sick," his sister says.

She doesn't blame his doctors for prescribing the medication. They took excellent care of her developmentally disabled brother, she says. Spencer suffered from cardiac problems as a result of his disability.

"There's no way they would have put him on that medication if they knew it had harmed him," she says. "They didn't have the information they needed, I suppose."

Dufresne is one of at least 50 local clients pursuing lawsuits against Merck & Co. Inc., the makers of Vioxx. Worldwide sales of the drug, on the market since 1999, were $2.5 billion in 2003, and the drug was heavily marketed on television. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in 1999.

Merck voluntarily pulled Vioxx from the shelves based on the results of a three-year trial of the medication that revealed there was an increased risk of heart attack and stroke beginning after 18 months of treatment in patients taking the drug. The FDA immediately issued an advisory. The drug was developed to offer pain relief without the gastric problems associated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as Aleve and Advil, Benjamin says.

Company officials said they believed they could have continued to market Vioxx with appropriate warning labels, but chose not to, a company spokesman said on Merck's Web site. About 300 lawsuits naming Merck have been announced.

Merck stock prices dropped 25 percent since the Sept. 30 voluntary recall, records indicate. Benjamin expects Merck to use expert witnesses at trial who'll testify that general factors such as health and age could have caused injury and death not the drug.

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