After being silent for more than six years, two women who say their doctor husbands died from undisclosed Neurontin risks have decided to speak out.
What began as "something deeply personal and private" in their lives has become their call for social justice, awareness and "protecting the health and safety of our loved ones," say Debbie Alsberge of Seattle and Robin Briggs of Charlotte, NC.
Adverse reactions to Neurontin have been greatly underestimated and unreported Debbie Alsberge says she believes, harming unsuspecting families and their physicians. "We must have the full and accurate facts about a drug's risks to make good decisions when family members consider treatment, especially with psychoactive drugs. We cannot do that if pharmaceutical companies are allowed to taint the outcome of clinical trials and bury the harmful evidence."
Growing up in northern California, the son of a surgeon, Dr. Doug Alsberge practiced occupational medicine near Seattle. A devoted father of two sons, he enjoyed hiking, sailing, swimming and golf and liked to write and play his acoustic guitar, says Debbie.
But when back pain from a pre-existing condition began to interfere with being able to stand for prolonged periods at work, Doug sought treatment from a pain specialist he sent his own patients to, says Debbie. The doctor gave him a narcotic analgesic and the recently approved Neurontin which was heavily marketed for pain, though only FDA approved for use in epilepsy. "There was nothing in the medical literature to alert his physicians that it might not be effective, or worse, cause further harm," says Debbie.
Though off the narcotics, Doug's entire demeanor continued to change on Neurontin. He was agitated, couldn't concentrate, couldn't sleep and had tremors says Debbie. The Alsberges attributed the symptoms to Doug's bipolar disorder, diagnosed in the 1990's. But whereas it had always stabilized with treatment before, this time, Doug went into a psychological free fall which began to affect his ability to work. His appearance degenerated, he stopped eating normally and police had to be called to the house for his emotional volatility.
"We didn't know his extreme internal restlessness was akathesia, which is linked to suicide in medical journals, or that it was from Neurontin," says Debbie. In his last, dark days, Doug drove for miles "searching for a knife to end his life," buying one at a nearby hardware store and another at a culinary store hours away. On Palm Sunday, April 13, 2003, in an apartment he had rented away from his family, Doug died of multiple, self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest. He was 52.
The death was "surreal, bizarre and horrific," says Debbie. But it was only after she saw an article about Neurontin suicide links that she requested Doug's pharmacy records and realized the increases in drug dosages correlated with his symptoms and personality change says Debbie. "I just stood there in the parking lot outside of the pharmacy holding the documents in stunned disbelief," she remembers.
Dr. Douglas Briggs was a Princeton graduate who practiced family medicine near Charlotte, NC. Dedicated to his patients, wife and two sons, he also coached soccer, headed the PTA, played tennis and ran in what sounds like a storybook existence. Nor did Briggs ever visit a psychiatrist or mental health professional.
But after back surgery, Briggs was also put on Neurontin for the pain it was widely marketed to treat. "Medicine had been Doug's passion and his whole life" says his wife, Robin, a former nurse. "But after a few months on Neurontin, his bedside manner became curt. He stopped reading his journals and just lay on the couch. He had always been a stoic and he became whiny about his back ache. We had never fought and we began fighting. He became a different person."
Doug was a conservative prescriber and grilled his Pfizer rep about Neurontin's safety more than once, says Robin. He was so attuned to his responses to medications, when he took Vioxx before its dangers were known, he noted heart palpitations -- and discontinued its use. A week later, Vioxx was pulled from pharmacy shelves for causing heart problems in some patients. But thanks to Neurontin-caused akathesia, Doug's ability to detect his own mental changes on the drug disappeared. "He did not know his suicidal thoughts were drug-induced and not his own," she says.
On Christmas day, 2004, after opening presents, Doug urged Robin and the boys to go to a movie. Hesitant to separate on a holiday at first, Robin says she remembered an "Oprah" show about how men should get the chance to be alone in the house, to unwind, like women have, so the three went see Meet the Fockers. When they returned, they found Doug hanging in the foyer. He had been on Neurontin for 10 months. He was 54.
Like Debbie Alsberge, Robin Briggs's "aha" moment came later. Two weeks after Doug's funeral, a distraught patient literally drove up on the Briggs' lawn saying he couldn't accept the uncharacteristic suicide and demanded to know what antidepressant Dr. Briggs was on, says Robin. Even though she had been asked the question countless times, responding, "He wasn't on an antidepressant, he just took Neurontin," this time Robin says a light bulb went off in her head and she ran upstairs to the medicine cabinet to read the Neurontin patient information for the first time.
It did not list suicide as a side effect but it did list "emotional lability" recounts Robin. "So I called my sister who is a nurse and asked her to look up Neurontin in the nurse's desk reference. In bold letters it said 'suicidal tendencies, sudden unexplained deaths and psychoses.' I was sickened. Pfizer deliberately hid the risk from patients and doctors!"
The faith that Drs. Alsberge and Briggs and their doctors had in Neurontin for non-epilepsy indications didn't just happen. It was the goal of a web of paid doctor lectures and peer selling, planted journal articles, phony medical education and rep visits to doctors that Pfizer (previously Parke-Davis and Warner-Lambert) conducted for years.