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The morning after housing day of my freshman year, I awoke to a sharp pain slicing down my abdomen. Moments later, when I looked into the porcelain bowl in my Hollis bathroom, I found the water stained crimson. School spirit aside, this seemed to be a problem.
A month later, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Ulcerative Colitis; six months later, I withdrew from Harvard.
My world-class team of doctors put me on countless different drugs–from steroids, to chemotherapies, to cutting edge ‘biologics.’
I spent months on narcotics like Vicodin to manage pain. Doctors inserted a 20-gauge needle into my spinal column three times in as many days, twice to inject my own blood and stymie my leaking spinal fluid. A tube ran down my esophagus, pumping my stomach to prevent the nausea that plagued me. Nothing worked; my body continued to destroy itself. Once a healthy 155 pounds, I disintegrated to 112 pounds.
Then, one morning, a surgical team solemnly informed me that my entire large intestine would need to be removed.
In some ways, I was lucky. Advances in medicine would mean that, after three surgeries, I would lead a mostly normal life. Admittedly, those were tough months, but between my loving parents, my extraordinary girlfriend, and a handful of close friends, I was never alone.
But why should my story be any different from the countless others who have suffered worse sorrows and surely endured more gracefully? People’s pains and trials roar with such volume it can make the most caring among us deaf to empathy.
Personal pain becomes a social injustice in the presence of unconscionable ethics. I discovered there was likely a connection between my disease and a drug I had taken in high school.
Allegedly, I should say. I’ll never get my day in court to prove it.
When I contacted an attorney, he claimed that a definite connection exists between the drug and the disease, and that the company knew about this connection for years without ever issuing a warning. Juries have agreed.
He believed I had a claim…unless I had taken a generic form of the drug. I checked my pharmaceutical records and found only the generic brand listed. I had no case. I was stunned. Why should it matter what brand I had taken? The drugs were exactly the same.
Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in Pliva v. Mensing, that generic drug manufacturers were not accountable for warning labels on their products. They believed it unfairly set generic manufacturers in a catch-22 of federal and state laws. It was a 5-4 decision.
In the minority, Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor asked, “Do you think Congress really intended to create a market in which consumers can only sue brand-named products? Because if that’s the case, why would anybody ever take a generic medicine?”
The point is more startling than it seems. Seventy percent of drugs taken in the United States are generics because most insurance plans will cover only generics, if they are available. Americans don’t have any choice in the matter. That’s what happened to me.
Justice Thomas, in the majority, denies the court’s culpability, writing, “We acknowledge the unfortunate hand that federal drug regulation has dealt [consumers]…But it is not this Court’s task to decide whether the statutory scheme established by Congress is unusual or even bizarre.”
In the midst of this finger pointing, Thomas fails to acknowledge that the court has bastardized the Supremacy Clause to allow for a legal blind spot. These justices have created an ‘international waters’, placing the welfare of millions of Americans in unarmed life rafts.
Doubtlessly, this experience has changed me. Medicine saved my life, but it can’t reverse the damage that was done. Some soldiers never come back from war, and some that do come back changed. I don’t claim the bravery that soldiers exhibit on the battlefield, but I will claim a single similarity: The scars on our bodies cover the deeper wounds inside. Even amidst the strength I am determined to find in this experience, there is something else. It’s a lingering, of sorts. A sense of never going back.
Would a seven-figure settlement fix everything? No. This is not about money, but responsibility.
So, what to do? A federal law that established a minimum standard of responsibility for generic drug companies would solve much of the problem. It may not be feasible to demand generics have the same safety trials as their brand name counterparts, but mandating that safety concerns be reported to the FDA could be a reasonable compromise. There is no reason why Congress should let a story like mine be told again.
It is an inverted justice that protects businesses over citizens. I have come to believe that empathy is a faculty of humanity that must be learned through suffering. That is the only reason I can comprehend for the indifference to wrongs exhibited here. Whatever normative calculus it was that governed these choices–surely, someone just forgot to carry the one. Surely, they just didn’t understand.
Surely. I have to believe that.
Gabriel N. Drapos ’13 is a philosophy concentrator living in Lowell House.
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