Hutch witness unleashes his anger
Seattle Times staff reporter
Joe Fisher tried to keep his anger bottled up through two days of trial testimony but finally couldn't.
He wanted to speak directly to the cancer doctors he is suing for the death of his wife, but an easel was blocking his view.
"Move the chart. I want these guys to see me," he told his attorney from the witness stand in the most dramatic moment of the trial so far. "I'm angry, man."
Fisher and the families of four other patients who died in a medical experiment at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are suing the center and three doctors.
The experiment, known as Protocol 126, was more for the researchers than for the patients, Fisher said.
"They wanted another data point from my wife," Fisher said, staring off into space. The doctors showed no reaction.
During his testimony, Fisher, a chemical-product salesman from Los Gatos, Calif., explained how his wife had agonized in 1983 over the decision to get a bone-marrow transplant.
Ruth Fisher, then 38 and a mother of four, learned in the summer of 1982 that she had chronic leukemia. The cancer went into remission with chemotherapy, but Fisher was told it would come back. Without a transplant, she'd probably live only two or three more years. A transplant gave her a 50 percent chance of a cure but the same chance of dying sooner.
Joe Fisher said he and his wife came to the Hutch in August 1983 because of its sterling reputation. They met with a doctor who explained the risks and benefits of bone-marrow transplants and later made an appointment to come back in December.
"There was a lot of tension building up and now we were finally at the gates," Joe Fisher testified.
A catheter was inserted into Ruth Fisher's chest to deliver chemo. Later, the family met with a doctor who explained the procedure and asked Ruth Fisher to sign consent forms.
Joe Fisher testified that it wasn't until that meeting that he first heard of T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell. Ruth Fisher had been assigned to Protocol 126, in which doctors would use certain proteins, called monoclonal antibodies, to deplete T-cells from her brother's donated bone marrow before infusing it into her.
As it turned out, Protocol 126 was disastrous: 84 of 85 patients enrolled in it died. Doctors have testified that researchers at the Hutch had from the start debated whether the experiment might lead to more deaths from graft rejection or cancer relapses.
Fisher, who took three pages of notes from the meeting, wrote down, "monoclonal antibody — good procedure." He said they were told that depleting the T-cells would improve his wife's chances.
According to Fisher's testimony, no one told them that the experiment was designed, in part, to see whether people given T-cell-depleted marrow would reject their grafts, a rare but fatal complication.
The doctor's notes show he told the Fishers that one of 11 earlier patients had graft rejection. However, Joe Fisher called the doctor's notes a "cover-your-butt memo."
Ruth Fisher died a month after her transplant.
Asked what they would have done if they had been told that the chances of surviving the experiment were unknown, Fisher said, "I know my wife, who was agonizing over this, would have said, 'Wait a minute. What are you guys talking about? We thought we were here for the transplant, for the cure.' "
David Heath: 206-464-2136 or email@example.com
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