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Oregon woman, 42, might not ever see suit come to trial

A judge decides to move the lawsuit by Carla Sickles, who blames "phen-fen" for her pulmonary hypertension, to federal court

Thursday, September 10 1998

By Amalie Young of the Associated Press

An Oregon woman who claims "phen-fen" diet pills led to a deadly lung condition may not live to see her lawsuit against a drug company come to trial after a judge's decision Wednesday to move the case to federal court.

Carla Sickles, a 42-year-old mother of three, has pulmonary hypertension. Her state trial had been scheduled to begin Monday, but her lawyers say she likely won't live out the inevitable delays caused by the move to federal court.

"She could go any day," said Mike Williams, a Portland attorney representing her.

Lawsuits had been filed against the two pharmaceutical companies that made fenfluramine and phentermine, known as "phen-fen" when taken together, and the physician who wrote Sickles' prescriptions in 1995.

A settlement had already been made with fenfluramine maker American Home Products. The remaining defendant is the British pharmaceutical company Fisons, which made phentermine.

Because Sickles' attorneys had moved to settle with the doctor -- the only defendant from Oregon -- U.S. District Judge Garr King ruled Wednesday that the case no longer fell under state jurisdiction.

The ruling could mean the case will be sent to a Philadelphia court, where hundreds of other diet pill cases are being tried together.

Guy Esouf, a spokesman for Rhone-Poulenc-Rorer, a pharmaceutical company which has since bought Fisons, said the company strongly believes in the safety of phentermine.

The Food and Drug Administration has not taken phentermine off the market, but companion drug fenfluramine is no longer available.

"We think they're responsible," said Jeff Merrick, another Sickles attorney. "They decided not to tell anyone because they were making so much money off the phen-fen fad."

Sickles was a teaching assistant at Falls City High School southwest of Dallas three years ago when she started to take "phen-fen" to help her lose some of the 266 pounds on her 4-foot-10 frame.

It worked: She had so little appetite that she had to remind herself to eat.

But during the following weeks, she developed shortness of breath, nausea and infections. A nurse practitioner in her doctor's office advised her to stop taking the phen-fen.

In February 1996, she became ill again; in the hospital, a doctor broke the news: primary pulmonary hypertension, a disorder that could be deadly.

Sickles' only treatment option was a heart-lung transplant, but she chose not to have the complex procedure.

"If I had been given the proper information and given the choice, I wouldn't have taken it," Sickles said a few months ago. "I wouldn't have risked my life for it."