The Chicago Tribune (2/16/16) reports on Becki Conway, an SJS survivor who was the 37-year-old mother to five children when she developed SJS. At the time, Conway was reportedly struggling with depression and anxiety. She sought help from a doctor friend who prescribed her a combination of Lamictal and Depakote, even though Lamictal’s black box warning cautions against taking the two drugs together.
Within two weeks of beginning the medication, Conway developed the first symptoms of SJS, although she didn’t know it at the time. She developed pain in her ears and chest pain. Because the chest pains seemed to be the most urgent problem, doctors ordered tests on Conway’s chest, not realizing she was battling Stevens Johnson Syndrome. After being released from the hospital with a Benadryl injection, Conway’s symptoms grew worse. She developed a skin rash and blisters in her mouth.
A doctor then diagnosed Conway with Stevens Johnson Syndrome, gave her a steroid shot and released her. Ultimately, Conway wound up in the hospital, where she was transferred to a burn unit. Most of her skin peeled off and her eyes were permanently damaged. Conway filed a lawsuit against the doctor who prescribed the two medications and against Sparrow Health System. The lawsuit was settled in 2014.
Both Conway and her husband say no one - from the doctor who prescribed the medications to the pharmacist who dispensed them - warned them about the risks of mixing the two drugs, nor that she could develop a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Stevens Johnson Syndrome is a rare allergic reaction to medication. Although some medications warn about the risk of developing a serious skin rash, few actually alert patients to the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction. They also don’t always warn what symptoms to watch for. Making matters worse is that many doctors have no experience with Stevens Johnson Syndrome, so the condition is often misdiagnosed, delaying treatment and increasing the risk that the patient will continue to take the medication that has caused the reaction in the first place.
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Stevens Johnson Syndrome is the less severe form of toxic epidermal necrolysis. Both are potentially fatal and often result in permanent scarring, blindness and organ problems even when the victim survives.
Recently, the US Supreme Court declined against hearing Johnson & Johnson’s appeal of a verdict against it linked to Stevens Johnson Syndrome. The lawsuit initially resulted in an award for around $63 million, but with interest the amount owed to the victim and her family could be closer to $140 million. That lawsuit involves Samantha Reckis, who developed SJS when she was seven years old.