It was not an easy trip for this mesh-injured group to make to New Brunswick, New Jersey, home of healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J).
As editor of Mesh News Desk, I had gathered five mesh-injured to fly into town but we were warned that while access to the annual J&J shareholders meeting April 24 was unlikely, our group could hold a news conference on the public sidewalk where shareholders, arriving by the busload, would pass by. Even with PR professionals alerting the media, there were no guarantees any media would show up.
So with those less-than-solid assurances, four women and one man, who all had authorization from their law firms to talk, flew from their homes to the gathering.
Linda Wilcox and Estelle Tasz were awaiting mesh explant surgery. Teresa Sawyer has had surgeries but has ongoing issues. Even those with their mesh removed felt violated and not whole.
The one man who traveled with me from Florida, Robert Fish, had watched the painful demise of his mother who ended her life when she could not get relief from the unrelenting pain of two pelvic mesh implants.
The meeting would follow a campaign launched by Corporate Action Network (CAN) which had just released its JohnsonandJohnsonHurtsWomen.org website here.
All of the participants had had their lives touched by Johnson & Johnson, one of six major mesh manufacturers. The week before, CAN had sent out a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the company for the destruction of documents that were on a litigation hold in pelvic mesh cases. Next came a letter to Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina to encourage her Subcommittee on Children and Families to initiate a U.S. Senate investigation into actions by J&J and its top executives for a pattern of reckless conduct that had seriously injured women across the U.S.
And J&J remains the defendants with the largest number of product liability lawsuits – at least 30,000 lawsuits in the U.S.
Most of us arrived Tuesday, April 22nd and gathered at the Hyatt, the hotel practically on the J&J World Headquarters campus.
The media blitz had worked with a live interview segment with Huffington Post and a phone interview with four mesh survivors talking to national media. See 10 minutes in here.
Nearby in New York City a group of dedicated young people and their van arrived. They had contributed to citizen actions by illuminating messages on the sides of buildings.
The Illuminator had been involved with citizen protests such as spying by the NSA and environmental issues such as species protection and fracking.
The Illuminator came to New Brunswick Wednesday night, April 23. It was extremely cold with temperatures in the 40s and blustery but the Illuminator shone its light from a public street on the side of the J&J headquarters “J&J Hurts Women lit up 8th, 9th and tenth floors. On the lawn of the Hyatt the message was “30,000 LAWSUITS AGAINST MESH – TIP OF THE ICEBERG.” On the awning of the Hyatt it said “J&J Hurts Women. Org” just as shareholders got comfy in their beds for the next day’s annual shareholder meeting.
Meanwhile a group of participants held up signs from The Light Brigade, essentially Christmas lights that spelled out “Johnson & Johnson Hurts Women,” both in front of headquarters and later on the public sidewalk facing the Hyatt. Folks driving by in New Brunswick honked their horns while shareholders and hotel guests leaving nearby restaurants after fine dining stopped on the sidewalk to take it all in.
The Getty picture service had signed a contract with the CAN public relations group to shoot and upload the event but, according to the media coordinator, the group broke the contract at the last minute. The reason given – ongoing litigation.
Thursday morning shareholders began arriving by the busload. As the large and loud Greyhounds approached the covered walkway outside of the Hyatt we held our news conference.
Mesh survivors, Hope Pagano and her husband Steven drove to the event as did Terri Rogers who lived nearby. Both felt they wanted to show support though they were not authorized by their law firms to speak.
Reporters from the Star Ledger and Associated Press arrived as did a photographer from Reuters. The most poignant shot came when Estelle began telling her story to those present.
“I want accountability” from Johnson & Johnson, said Tasz.
“I’m not the person I was, the mom I was, and obviously not the wife I was,” she said. “I want answers and I want my life back.”
Tasz broke down in front of the cameras. She later apologized. I said her words were powerful.
Robert spoke with great emotion about his mother with the very similar words he had used the day before during a conference call interview with various media outlets.
After the news conference the handmade signs made the night before went up for all arriving by bus to see.
Robert had stayed up to make the poster with his mother’s picture. He stood silently, passively as those unloading from the bus invariably had to pass him. About two dozen shareholders saw the sign and told Robert they were sorry. They were mostly older women, he said. One woman, a nurse, rolled her eyes in what he interpreted in solidarity and said “I know about that, I’m a nurse.”
One woman in her 70s asked Robert what it was about. He said the mesh made by J&J to correct pelvic problems destroys women’s health. She seemed interested, he said.
The younger, well-dressed corporate types who were walking very fast from J&J corporate headquarters across the street for the most part hurried past and did not make eye contact.
Hello Mr. Gorsky
Meanwhile inside the shareholders meeting that began at 9:30 a.m. Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky told the crowd of about 1,650 that the corporation was healthy and its three business segments were all doing well. Shareholders gave Gorsky high marks for his two-year tenure that’s seen stock prices soaring.
A shareholder meeting is not the time to talk about recalled consumer products such as Motrin, Benadryl and Tylenol or the contaminated plants the Food and Drug Administration took over in recent years. Many of those recalled products will not return to store shelves for another year.
Sitting near the front was CAN’s Mark Fleischman who introduced a resolution for a friend. The shareholder proposal required executives of J&J to retain their J&J stock compensation until they retire. Shareholders voted down that proposal but Fleischman was front and center and not about to give up the microphone.
He introduced author, Gay Courter who began by commending the company for 100 years of products that stand for purity, health and safety.
“But today I am here as a woman injured by transvaginal mesh representing tens of thousands like me and several other women in this room, including Linda Wilcox and Teresa Sawyer.
“Today I call on this board and officers to conduct an investigation on whether it is worth keeping any mesh in your product line. There is no reason any woman should ever have to suffer lifelong debilitating pain or have disfiguring surgeries to remove this product. It is ironic to call a division Ethicon when it acts unethically and continues to injure so many women including your mothers, your wives, your sisters, your daughters, some of your employees, possibly yourself–not to mention myself. Please protect your brand and also protect women.”
A smattering of applause was heard from the audience of shareholders of J&J. Neither Gorsky nor his crew stopped the testimony.
”Mr. Gorsky, you hurt me,” said Teresa Sawyer said at the microphone next referring to her TVT (transvaginal tape) implanted in 2011. Sawyer, who prayed before testifying, said she felt strangely elated addressing Gorsky and the crowd.
Linda Wilcox, 67, commended the company for all the good it does but asked if J&J was planning to stand up and be responsible for what they’ve done to her and all the other women.
After the meeting CEO Gorsky said to the women he was sorry about their problems but the company puts patients and their safety first. His personnel took the names of the three women.
“I appreciated his few minutes to greet the three of us ladies. At first I felt like I touched the hand of the devil, but realized he is a man and that if we keep pressing him we can change his position on the mesh products and stop hurting women,” said Sawyer.
Afterward she was personally addressed by a half dozen stockholders and some patted her on the back to show sympathy. One woman was near tears apologizing to Teresa for her injuries. Teresa and her husband David have turned their tragedy into action by starting the nonprofit TVT-NO! to try and support women financially and with information to make an informed decision.
Most notable was a shareholder who gave Teresa her card and asked for help. The female shareholder is now having problems with her own pelvic mesh implant.