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Wife-Stabbing Blamed on a Cancer Medication : Ex-Judge Rebuilds His Life After the 1969 Attack That Temporarily Shattered His Family

June 10, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

When he was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, Lloyd Davis had four children, ages 11 to 15, and a socialite wife. The family lived in a roomy house on a shady street. All that Davis had to look forward to, it seemed, was prominence and increasing good fortune.

His fall came on Oct. 26, 1969.

"South Pasadena Judge Jailed in Stabbing," read the headline in the Pasadena Star-News. Beneath the word stabbing was a photograph of the 9-inch kitchen knife, with bent tip, with which Davis had attacked his then 51-year-old wife in the kitchen of their home while their children played upstairs. Davis' wife was hospitalized for a week with a collapsed lung; she eventually recovered. Davis, charged with felony assault with intent to commit murder, was acquitted by reason of insanity.

He Reopened Topic

There followed a number of years during which Davis would not talk about the episode that temporarily shattered his family; and in hopes that many people have forgotten, his wife still prefers not to have her name used in conjunction with the incident. But Lloyd Davis recently reopened the topic because he said he wants to inform people about the role an adverse drug reaction can have in creating mental imbalance.

Davis, who appears extremely fit for his 70 years, is convinced that the stabbing and his subsequent psychotic episode were triggered largely by an idiosyncratic reaction to 5-fluorouracil, a topical medication commonly prescribed for pre-cancerous skin conditions. The drug, which is also administered internally for colon and rectal cancer, is one of the most common chemotherapeutic agents in use today, according to William Quan, a clinical oncology pharmacist at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Medicine, Behavior Link

"To our knowledge we're unaware of reports of this type of adverse reaction being associated with 5-fluorouracil," said Martin Hirsch, a spokesman for Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. which manufactured the medication. "The only report of this kind was Lloyd F. Davis'."

In the years following the stabbing, Davis began to examine the suspected link between the medicine and his erratic behavior. In the 21 years he had spent in the county counsel's office before being appointed judge, Davis had defended many malpractice cases and so had learned how to research medical matters.

Applying this skill to his own case, Davis found that most of the major medical journals, as well as many periodicals that report on advances in neurology and chemotherapy, had made mention of neurotoxic reactions to fluorouracil. Symptoms include irritability, confusion and cerebellar ataxia, which pharmacist Quan defined as "lack of coordination of the brain."

According to the medical literature and doctors contacted by The Times, neurological reactions to this particular medication are rare and usually mild. There is no absolute evidence linking Davis' knife attack with use of the medication. At least one doctor, neuropsychiatrist Robert Sedgwick, said he remains unconvinced that a neurotoxic reaction was to blame. Sedgwick, who examined Davis soon after the assault, said that someone suffering from a neurotoxic reaction does not often take "directed, goal-specific" action such as stabbing someone. Davis' claim could be "a defense mechanism, removing the responsibility from him to the drug," Sedgwick said.

Violent Reaction Possible

Although he could not conjecture about the specific effects of fluorouracil on Davis, David Gorelick, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, said that it is possible for topical substances to cause neurotoxic reactions in some people and that under the influence of the medication such a person could become "disinhibited" to the point where he would be capable of violence.

Davis believes his story should serve as a suggestion that doctors rule out physiological causes of mental illness before turning to psychological roots. He also wants users of medication who may experience bizarre reactions to consider that the cure can sometimes be worse than the sickness, he said.

A member of the Sierra Club for 50 years, Davis was a hiker, climber and ski-mountaineer in the days before sun screen.

When Davis, a 1939 graduate of Stanford University Law School, was in his 50s, the effects of all that high-altitude sun began to show on his face and ears. He developed actinic keratoses, pre-cancerous patches of skin. His dermatologist prescribed a preparation containing 5-fluorouracil, to be applied all over Davis' face daily.

"The first week nothing much happened," Davis said during an interview in his Wilshire-area law office. "The second week it looked like I had a bad case of sunburn. The third week my face was broken out and bleeding." Before going to work each day, he camouflaged the unsightly skin as best he could with an opaque sun screen.

Increasingly Confused

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