Monday, May 30, 2011

Low Down, Lipitor

High Cholesterol? Take Statins to lower it and reduce your risk of heart attack, heart disease, stroke. Esther, my sister-in-law bought into this advertisement like millions of Americans, perhaps even more so because as a nurse, she was a part of the medical establishment and she embraced its tenets, its gravitas, its pronouncements as holy writ. She regularly got physical check-ups, always had blood work, mammograms, pap smears, two stress tests, EKGs, in short, every test doctors advised her to take as a precaution to forestall any dangers lurking below the surface. The woman was always spot on.

When her doctors prescribed Lipitor after blood work showed high cholesterol, we thought nothing of it and neither did Est. Heart disease was in the family and this drug would protect her from it. Since her body produced the bad LDL cholesterol, she needed to lower it significantly; I remember her telling me her numbers were severe, but the medication appeared to be working and the doctor was checking her bloodwork to make sure there were no elevated numbers indicating issues with her liver.

This went on for some years. Est's doctor retired and she selected another doctor she knew from her job. One day I visited Est and Gabe's home in Medford. It was summer and Est and I walked into the backyard, past the outbuilding into the lush wooded area. I noticed Est was limping. She told me the doctor after recent bloodwork discovered her cholestrol was over 430; he upped the dosage of Lipitor. After a time, she had aches and pains in her muscles and around her groin; she was finding it difficult to walk. After additional monthly bloodwork, the doctor lowered the dosage again. She had muscle and liver damage. Though he switched her to a lower dosage, he still kept her on Lipitor.  It took her months to be restored and by that point she told me her doctor had put her on another Statin drug. Nothing was mentioned by the doctor, but it was obvious that Lipitor was dangerous if high dosages were perscribed, to the point where she was taken off the drug.

The entire incident was absolutely scary for me. Bloodwork was required monthly to check for liver damage? Well, why did the doctor up the dosage knowing he could be harming her liver? Was she going to have a heart attack because of her cholesterol levels? I had read somewhere that it wasn't even conclusive that there was a reasonable certitude of the correlation between cholesterol and heart disease...the first causing the second. There were even reports that researchers were beginning to think that there was a stronger correlation between inflammation and heart disease.  Well, the doctor wasn't a researcher; he was following what was proscribed by others in "the know." Unfortunately, they and he didn't have "all the information" and Est listened to him, at her peril.

Her fear of having a heart attack like her father kept her enslaved. She didn't think for herself or question the dosage or the doctor. She didn't do her own research; she didn't have the time; she was busy with family. As I think about this in retrospect, she like others in the medical profession performed what was the trend. She wasn't raised with a healthy skepticism; in fact, to cram all the required facts in her brain, skepticism would have gummed up the process. Besides, Est was birthed from the system, beholden to it; she made her living from it. She believed that drugs would help her live, though she almost convinced herself that she would be dead before she could collect Social Security. You see, heart disease was in her family; it was a given she would get it. That's how enthralled she was to her fear and to the doctors who nurtured it and watched it grow like an abscess, albeit, for them, a profitable one.

Eighteen or nineteen years have passed since then. Est is not on any Statins; she has been off them for four years. Her heart is fine; she doesn't have heart disease. She is as healthy as an ox. But her short term memory is practically gone some days. Other days she is better, especially in the morning. On bad days she repeatedly will ask the same question every five minutes, especially if she is anxious. She forgets what you say to her and you must often repeat it. Cumulatively, she has stopped her love of reading books. She has stopped her interest in antiques. She no longer cooks and actually, she doesn't do much these days. My brother now is taking charge of the household, the shopping, the meals, the laundry, most tasks. Est occupies herself with their three cats with Gabe's help; they swim in their pool. My brother is concerned and doesn't let her drive, especially after her car accident and the surgery she had from whiplash.

Looking back, do I see how the changes came on gradually? Yes. Confusion, forgetfulness, disorientation. This is what Est is struggling with. And it grieves me to think back to the time when I first heard her tell me she was taking Lipitor for her "high" cholesterol. I have so many questions and no answers except what is offered online. I'm not sure that Est's memory loss was conclusively caused by the Lipitor. Did it contribute to it? I think there is a good possibility. People are different; their bodies are different. Not all drugs affect everyone the same. And this IS THE PROBLEM. Often everyone is dosed the same. How can people who are brilliant be so blind? (I am talking about patients, not doctors.) For are we not the ones aware of and responsible for our own bodies, feelings, well being? Aren't the doctors our advisers? Aren't we the last word on our own health?

There is a class action lawsuit against Pfizer, not because of false claims that Lipitor lowered cholesterol and didn't. No. The litigation centers around the lies of omission. Pfizer neglected to emphasize the dangerous side effects of the drug. As the truth is coming out  by degrees and we see "through a glass darkly," apparently, the side effects were worse than even noted. Websites abound and abound. Take your pickLitigation is on going. And the information is getting out and some doctors are advancing the movement questioning the use of Lipitor and Statin drugs. The problem is that the drug is still being prescribed to millions and even worse, the threshold of what is considered "high cholesterol" has been lowered to 185-200. In other words, regardless, those doctors who are not brave enough to be mavericks and investigators of the medicine they dispense, follow protocol and use these lower-threshhold guidelines.

Meanwhile, Est's memory is deteriorating. Memory loss is not a known side effect of Lipitor, you say? What do you really know about Lipitor? What your doctor told you? What the advertisements say? What your friend who is taking it says? Or the extensive research you've done for yourself on the drug and its side effects?

Pfizer is absolutely correct. Lipitor does lower one's cholesterol. we really want to replace one potential problem with one that is far worse...liver damage, memory loss, confusion, muscle damage, especially when we aren't really sure whether cholesterol IS CAUSING heart disease or if it is just a sympton/by-product of the process that is contributing to heart disease, a process which may be multifactored?

If Est knew there was a risk of memory loss, a risk of how she is experiencing life now, would she have agreed to take Lipitor? Maybe not; she was robotic medical profession. But if she was aware of those side effects and started experiencing them, she might have asked to be taken off the drug sooner. She might have been more wary.

We know what the medical profession and Pfizer think. For the last word, check this out

Now, what do you think?


Margo Dill said...

I think it's scary! Thanks for sharing the information.

Carole Di Tosti said...

Yes, and I've heard a number of testimonies related to Lipitor problems. The class action lawsuit says it all. But I'm upset it's too late for Esther.