In the made-for-TV movie about two women who took on Dow Corning Corp. and other medical device makers over the safety of silicone breast implants, the women emerge as winners. In real life, P.J. Brent's story did not have such a happy ending.
Like the movie heroines, the Atlanta mother of six believed she had been poisoned by leaking implants. But by March 2000, when she testified before the Food and Drug Administration, public and scientific opinion had shifted. Many scientists and doctors now consider the breast implant scare to be nothing more than a case of junk science meeting legal excess. Brent told the panel that silicone ruined her health and harmed two of her children whom she breast-fed. But a Pennsylvania pediatrician contradicted her, telling the FDA that there is no scientific evidence linking Brent's implants to her children's severe leg numbness, rashes and difficulty swallowing.
Brent's story ended a few months after the FDA hearing. One summer morning, she drove to the top of a five-story parking garage at a shopping mall in suburban Atlanta, climbed over the railing and leaped to her death.
"She said she was going grocery shopping, and 30 minutes later she was dead," her husband, Ed Brent, said.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 15, 2001 Home Edition Health Part S Page 6 View Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
* A story Oct. 1 about silicone breast implants incorrectly stated that a National Cancer Institute study examined women whose implants had leaked silicone through the bloodstream. Actually, the study looked at women with leakage beyond the chest area into surrounding tissue. Also, the study tested only for the disease fibromyalgia.
For years, women like Brent who blame breast implants for chronic illnesses had lawyers, activists, journalists and a small but determined group of doctors and scientists to back them up. Plagued by fatigue, constant pain and memory loss, the women were the subject of talk shows, scientific papers and scores of published articles. They filed lawsuits by the thousands and began winning cases with multimillion-dollar damage awards. In one 1992 case, a Texas woman was awarded a whopping $25 million.
Then, in the mid-1990s, their cases began to unravel. New research failed to find a connection between their symptoms and their implants. Even as breast implant manufacturers agreed to a record-breaking class-action settlement, prestigious medical journals were publishing studies concluding that women with implants were no more likely to be sick than the rest of us.
Today, 10 years after the FDA removed silicone implants from the market, doctors, implant makers and regulators cite these studies as irrefutable evidence that silicone implants are safe. Indeed, breast implant procedures--now using saline implants that have a silicone coating--are more popular than ever in this country. About 267,000 U.S. women had implant surgery last year, more than twice the number that did so in 1996, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. And a new type of firmer silicone gel implant, already available in Europe, is being tested as part of the manufacturer's plan to introduce it in the United States. Meanwhile, some women have sought out underground clinics and house parties where they can get illegal silicone injections to smooth facial wrinkles or fill out their breasts and lips.
For many women, however, the years since the implant controversy dropped from the front pages of newspapers have been especially hard. They feel doubly victimized by the flip-flop in public, legal and scientific opinion on this issue. Despite evidence to the contrary, many of these women still insist their implants triggered chronic, debilitating illnesses. They suffer health problems ranging from joint pain to lupus to multiple sclerosis but now find themselves cast not as victims, but as frauds. Many feel a sense of betrayal from doctors who no longer take their complaints seriously, from lawyers who once courted them and now refuse to take their phone calls, and from the media, which once played up the dangers of silicone implants and now largely ignore their stories.
"It is depressing to continue to be sick, know why you are sick and have people tell you that implants are perfectly safe and it's all in your head," said Margaret Melvin, an Orlando, Fla., woman who hosts a Web site discussion, called "Silicone Holocaust," on implant safety. "Depression is one of the biggest things we battle."
P.J. Brent's suicide was not the first among women who believe they are ill from implants, Melvin noted. Women with silicone breast implants are four times more likely to commit suicide than other plastic surgery patients, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute.
At the time of her death, Brent seemed depressed by her own fatigue and her struggle to get confirmation for the link between her implants and her children's health problems, her husband said. "That's the only explanation I can give you as to why she took her life," Ed Brent said.