NORPLANT AND THE DAMAGE DONE

Most of the time the twins were asleep in bed and Laura was doing the dinner dishes or straightening up the house when the throbbing started, a relentless thudding in her head that made her stomach churn and forced her eyes shut. "Have you ever gotten a headache from eating ice cream?" she asks. "Multiply that times about 80. I'd get to the bathroom and puke until I had the dry heaves. More than once my husband had to pick me off the bathroom floor and walk me or carry me to bed. He'd give me the medicine I took for migraines. Before I had the Norplant, I was the kind of person who never even had to take an aspirin for a headache."

The migraines came and went, but the menstrual bleeding was almost constant. During one seven-month stretch, "I had just 11 days off from my period. Sometimes I had profuse bleeding. I had a diminished sex drive. I had this loss of appetite but kept gaining weight, like about 40 pounds. My hair was coming out in handfuls," she continues, listing the particulars of her "three years in hell" in a clipped, businesslike fashion, lest she linger over the memory and lose her composure. "A typical day for me would be to get up and concentrate real hard on getting everything that needed to be done done, to make it to the end of the day. I wanted to sleep all the time, but sometimes I couldn't sleep at all."

At first, Laura and her family and friends thought she was suffering from postpartum depression. She had given birth to twins, her first two children, on Valentine's Day in 1991. Knowing she didn't want more kids in the near future but not ready to rule out the possibility altogether, she seemed an ideal candidate for Norplant, a form of birth control that had been approved for commercial use by the FDA just two months earlier. Norplant consists of six thin capsules the size of cardboard matchsticks that are surgically implanted on the underside of a woman's upper arm. The capsules slowly release a synthetic hormone designed to prevent the release of eggs from a woman's ovaries and to thicken the mucus in her cervix. It's supposed to prevent pregnancy for a five-year period. After hearing about Norplant from her doctor and reading the information he provided her about the product and its potential side effects, Laura agreed to have it inserted in March 1991. "I thought, great. I'm going to be busy with the twins and I don't have to take the Pill, and it's not going to have any more unusual side effects than the Pill, which I had taken before," she says.

In fact, Laura was so assured of the safety of Norplant that she didn't even think of it as a potential source of her myriad problems until years later. "I thought it was me, that I was having a really hard time with being a parent," she says with a trace of bitterness. At her mother's urging, she went to a psychiatrist, who saw how overwhelmed she was and prescribed Prozac, which she stopped taking after three weeks.

"It got to the point where she thought she was losing her mind," says Kim, Laura's best friend since childhood. "At first she was always angry and then she became distant with me. Finally I told her I was really concerned for her--that she was heading down a road she wasn't going to return from, one that didn't have anything to do with motherhood, and that I thought it might have something to do with that Norplant."

Laura's husband had recently begun voicing the same suspicions. "I suddenly realized I had been confined to something that wasn't myself," Laura says. "Because my hair was so thin, I wore it short; I had always had long hair. These cysts kept appearing on my face; it took me four plastic surgeries to get rid of them. I've never had cysts before or since. I've always been happy and artistic, but I had lost the ability to express myself, to do any painting or to just sing to myself. I was overwhelmed because I couldn't be all of myself. And I realized that I had to have it taken out."

She finally had the capsules removed in 1994. "I was a whole new woman inside of a week," she says. "I told my husband it was like looking through a shroud for three years, and then it came off. I love my kids so much, and I truly regret I was not the best parent I could be over those three years. They teach me how to be a good mom sometimes; I didn't pick up on that before. I'm thinking about when my sons caught their first fish. It was a big moment for them and for me too. On the Norplant I probably would have missed that feeling. I have this wonderful life," she says, starting to cry, "and I didn't even know it was there."

Thousands of women across the country have told similar stories about their experience with Norplant. They describe episodes of prolonged bleeding, splitting headaches, abrupt mood swings, extraordinary weight gain, hair loss, and acne allegedly caused by the drug. In addition, some doctors have had difficulty locating and removing all of the capsules when women have asked to have them taken out. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against manufacturer Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories.

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