Sunday, August 25, 2002

Husband's suicide blamed on drug

Widow backs Army probe of Lariam's tie to slayings

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Linda Perry holds granddaughter Paley, 3, and portrait of husband Chuck, who killed himself in 1999.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        A Bethel widow whose husband committed suicide after taking Lariam applauds the Army's decision to investigate whether the anti-malaria drug was behind the actions of four servicemen, including a 1984 Mason High School graduate, who are accused of killing their wives.

        Army Master Sgt. William Wright, who allegedly strangled his wife, Jennifer, before burying her on Fort Bragg, N.C., grounds, and two others committed the slayings after returning home from Afghanistan, officials say.

        The fourth, Sgt. Cedric Griffin, never went to Afghanistan. In July, he stabbed his estranged wife and set her body aflame, authorities say.

        The Army is investigating whether the servicemen's use of Lariam - which affects the brain and can trigger vivid dreams, hallucinations, tinnitus, anxiety and depression - is the common thread linking the killings.

        The Army Surgeon General's Office has put together an epidemiological team that is scheduled to arrive at Fort Bragg today.

        Linda Perry, 58, of Bethel remembers her husband Chuck's crazed eyes, shaking hands, constant confusion and visions of monkeys in the room. Lariam turned the joyful, successful health administrator into a complete stranger, she said.

        The man who constantly played Louis Armstrong's “What A Wonderful World” never would have shot himself if it hadn't been for the drug also known as mefloquine, she believes.

        “It's kind of difficult to relive these things, but we're trying to prevent people from getting hurt here,” she said. “What I most remember is what a good man he was. He was my best friend. He was the center of my life.

        “After the Lariam, it wasn't the Chuck that I knew anymore. I saw what Lariam can do. It took a perfectly healthy man at the prime of his life and destroyed him. It was complete madness, like rabies or encephalitis,” she said.

        Mrs. Perry is an education coordinator at Brown County Hospital in Georgetown. Her husband was an administrator for Tennessee-based Quorum Health Resources' former Greater Cincinnati office.

        In the summer of 1998, doctors advised them to take Lariam, which was approved in the United States as an anti-malaria drug in 1989. The couple did, in preparation for a trip to Zimbabwe to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

        They received eight pills each. It was after the fourth weekly dose that they both experienced the first side effects 1/2ndash 3/4 “technicolor” nonsensical dreams and profuse night sweats. They were in the mountains of Zimbabwe and it was the middle of the country's winter. There was a chill in the night air. It made no sense.

        “We did know it was the medication but what we didn't know was that it was a precursor to more serious problems. Why didn't we stop (taking the drug)? We didn't know,” she said.

        The Perrys returned home after two weeks, eager to share the wonders of their African adventures with their seven children. Unfortunately, the Lariam's side effects lingered in their bodies, especially for Mr. Perry.

        His complexion became sallow. He couldn't sleep. He became nervous and anxious, often forgetting to attend meetings.

        Because of the extreme ringing in his ears, he covered them when tractors drove by his home and sometimes screamed when his wife showered in the next room. The sound of hissing water pained him.

        He became more withdrawn and paranoid until “in October, he completely collapsed,” Mrs. Perry said.

        Her husband was hospitalized. Doctors diagnosed him to have organic brain damage due to Lariam toxicity. He quit his job and took disability.

        Still, the real Mr. Perry kept slipping away. His lucid moments slipped through her hands like sand. He already seemed gone.

        On Jan. 24, 1999, Mrs. Perry wanted more milk for her hot chocolate. Mr. Perry handed it to her. Seconds later, he shot himself.

        “It's very unusual for a perfectly healthy person to commit suicide. The question is, you don't know when you start having the side effects, when it's going to stop,” said Janet Abaray, the Cincinnati attorney who represented Mrs. Perry in a federal lawsuit filed two years ago against Lariam's manufacturer, Roche Laboratories of Nutley, N.J.

        In April, the company reached an undisclosed settlement with Mrs. Perry.

        “You certainly want to prevent this from happening ever again. The families need to know - for their own peace of mind - what happened,” Ms. Abaray said.

        A 1996 study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that 1 in 140 travelers taking mefloquine can expect to have an adverse neuropsychiatric effect.

        Raymond Woosley, vice president of health sciences at University of Arizona in Tucson and an authority on drug side effects, has heard of Lariam users harming themselves but never others.

        “But it's certainly possible,” he said.

        Because the drug affects the brain, the side effects are more dangerous than others and also harder to study, he said. He supports the Army's decision to study Lariam's possible link to the slayings.


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