Saturday, October 12, 2002

Drug becomes weapon in custody fight


Family says prescription medicine caused grandfather's suicide, denies instability

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BETHEL — Amber Perry lost her father to Lariam. Now she faces the prospect of losing her 3-year-old daughter, too, in a custody battle that could revolve around the controversial anti-malarial drug.

Lariam is under investigation by the Army as a possible link in four recent homicides at Fort Bragg, N.C. It could take center stage when Ms. Perry, 31, and her former lover, Jay Huelsman, enter a Hamilton County juvenile courtroom in a few weeks to fight for custody of Paley, who lives with her mother and grandmother.

[photo] Linda Perry lost her husband (in photo) to mental illness she says was caused by Lariam. Now she may lose custody of her granddaughter, Paley.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Magistrate Constance Murdock will decide Paley's future after an Oct. 28 trial. She ruled in July that Mr. Huelsman's attorney could enter “all the circumstances” alluding to Ms. Perry's psychological and mental health.

That includes the 1999 suicide of Ms. Perry's father, Chuck Perry. In past custody proceedings, Mr. Huelsman's attorney, Tim Hickey, has brought up the death and its impact on Ms. Perry. She and her mother, Linda Perry, objected, pointing to Lariam as the culprit.

They say they saw the drug transform a robust, successful hospital administrator into a thin, agitated man who suffered from extreme paranoia. Linda Perry sued and later settled out of court with the drug's makers, Hoffman LaRoche, who defend the drug, maintaining that millions have used it safely over the past two decades. The Perrys say their settlement should be proof that the death was Lariam-related and has nothing to do with Amber Perry's ability to parent.

“It's going to be a smear campaign. They'll definitely go there,” said Amber Perry, who has full custody and, according to the courts, has to let Paley visit Mr. Huelsman only once a month.. “If they don't understand Lariam, how are you supposed to defend yourself? What does (Lariam) have to do with anything?”

Lariam is at the center of an Army investigation into four recent homicides involving soldiers and their wives at Fort Bragg. Included is the strangulation in June of Jennifer Wright, allegedly killed by her husband, Army Master Sgt. William Wright, a 1984 Mason High School graduate who had just returned from Afghanistan.

Sgt. Wright took Lariam for the deployment and, according to newspaper reports, is suffering from worsening mental problems in the Cumberland County Jail. Two other servicemen, also reported to have used Lariam, took their own lives after killing their wives. The fourth was not deployed recently, leaving some doubt about the Lariam connection.

“Lariam is at fault here and it needs to stop,” Linda Perry said. “When I think of losing my granddaughter because my husband committed suicide ... that's a little bit more than I can handle. It's just insane. We fought to come back from Chuck's death. If we lose this baby, for no reason, we can't come back from that.”

“All's fair” in custody cases

Mr. Huelsman, 32, recently moved from South Carolina to Greene County, east of Dayton, Ohio. He wants full custody of Paley but refused to comment for this story.

“Whatever we have to say will be said in court,” said his attorney, Mr. Hickey. But, “there are a lot of issues in this case.”

Court documents indicate that both parents believe the other is unfit to raise Paley. Mr. Huelsman has claimed that Amber Perry could be psychologically unstable. Amber Perry said that charge is unfair; she already has passed a battery of psychological tests to attain her job as a safety engineer with Bechtel-Jacobs in Piketon, Ohio, which manages the U.S. Department of Energy's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Legal experts agree that anything can be mentioned in a custody case.

“Nothing's fair when you're in court and it's concerning a kid,” said Randal Bloch, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in family law. “If you want fair, you go to (a fair) in Carthage or Columbus. ... You don't go to court.”

But if Mr. Perry's suicide is mentioned, then “the drug is really on trial,” she said.

Lariam's side effects

More than 25 million foreign travelers, military personnel and Peace Corps volunteers have taken Lariam since the drug was introduced in 1985. The tablets effectively prevent malaria, a potentially fatal disease transmitted by mosquitoes in Third World countries; but there are risks. Side effects include night sweats, vivid dreams, hallucinations, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts; a study released last year found that 29 percent of users suffered mild to severe psychiatric side effects.

Terry Hurley, a Hoffman LaRoche spokesman, refused to comment on the Army's investigation or Lariam's possible role in the custody battle. But he firmly stood by the drug.

“Don't forget,” he said, “more than 25 million consumers worldwide have used Lariam safely and effectively. The benefit-risks (ratio) remains favorable. It remains one of the drugs of choice with the CDC and World Health Organization.”

The Perrys were prescribed an eight-week regimen in 1998 as they prepared for a two-week trip to Africa to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Both experienced night sweats and vivid dreams after they took their fourth pills in Zimbabwe. For Mr. Perry, the side effects spiraled into dementia, his family says.

He returned to work at Quorum Health Resources' former office in Sycamore Township. Within two months, he lost 50 pounds. He suffered anxiety attacks, paranoia and memory loss. Doctors diagnosed “organic brain damage due to Lariam toxicity.” Mr. Perry quit his job, living on disability pay.

But he was at Amber's side when she delivered Paley at the former Bethesda Oak Hospital in Cincinnati. Lucid for the moment, he cut the umbilical cord and held his tiny granddaughter.

He never held her again. He couldn't stop shaking and feared that he might drop her. Three months later, he fatally shot himself at home. His wife was in a nearby room.

Custody battle begins

Soon after, Paley's mother and father squared off in juvenile court over Paley's custody. Amber Perry soon realized that her former boyfriend would use her father's suicide against her.

“They were trying to use the suicide as if the whole family was unstable,” she said.

Linda Perry wants everyone to know about Lariam. If Mr. Hickey asks about her husband's death, she promises an earful.

“He didn't go out and just kill himself,” she said. “My husband's death is a wrongful death. To say that because my husband committed suicide, this is an unstable family ... In fact, the way that we have handled his death has proved that we're not unstable, we're damned heroic.

“To have survived his illness, his suicide, a lawsuit and now this custody battle ... To be able to endure all that doesn't attest to instability, it attests to stability.”

Lawyers specializing in family law concurred that any questions pertaining to Mr. Perry's suicide are bound to lead into uncharted courtroom discussions about Lariam and whether the suicide affected Paley's life.

Two local psychologists, Michael Borack, who could testify for Paley's father, and Ed Connor, who could testify for Amber Perry, agreed to talk about the case in generalities.

When someone commits suicide, Mr. Borack said, his survivors could suffer from severe trauma for several years. Their ability to parent a child depends on their ability to partition off the grief, he said, refusing to comment on Lariam.

Dr. Connor said the Lariam must be considered.

“Was it an actual suicide or was it something else that led to the death?” he asked. “Any case is about the parent parenting the child and not what an extended family member may or may have not done years and years ago.”

For most of her life, little Paley has resided with her grandmother, an education coordinator at Brown County Hospital in Georgetown, and her mother.

A custody order requires Paley to spend a weekend every month with her father and stepmother. She knows little about her parents' litigation and even less about her grandfather's suicide. But she sees “Grump” in the family photo albums and is told that she has his same joy and love for life.

Like Grump once did, Paley likes to sing and dance. Her sweet young voice often warbles through the house once silent with grief.

“She has given me that spark again. If we lose this little girl, it would destroy us,” Linda Perry said.

E-mail svela@enquirer.com

"Nothing's fair when you're in court and it's concerning a kid. If you want fair, you go to (a fair) in Carthage or Columbus. ... You don't go to court.'

Randal Bloch, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in family law

The Cincinnati Enquirer/JEFF SWINGER
Linda Perry lost her husband to suicide. Now she's fighting to retain custody of her granddaughter, Paley.
Ms. Perry says a prescription drug, Lariam, caused her father's mental decline.
About Lariam
Drug name: Mefloquine
Brand name: Lariam
Maker: Hoffman LaRoche Ltd. of Basel, Switzerland
Distributor: Roche Laboratories Inc. of Nutley, N.J.
Introduced: 1985
Users: 25 million
Dosage: 250 mg tablets, weekly
Prescribed for: Travelers, military personnel and Peace Corps volunteers headed for tropical areas where malaria risk is high. That includes Haiti, Africa, India, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central America, South America, Dominican Republic.
Side effects: Depression, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts. A study published last year in Clinical Infectious Diseases said 29 percent suffered mild to severe psychiatric side effects.
Lariam-related deaths, lawsuits: 11 suicides in last four years. Several Lariam-use lawsuits have been filed in the United States; two resulted in settlements but terms remain secret.
Sources: Roche Laboratories, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.



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