Terry DeVine column: Documentary will feature MeritCare

MeritCare Health System's key role back in 1997 in establishing a possible link between the diet drugs fen-phen and valvular heart disease is still making news.

MeritCare Health System's key role back in 1997 in establishing a possible link between the diet drugs fen-phen and valvular heart disease is still making news.

A four-member television crew from the Public Broadcast System's Frontline program is in Fargo all day today shooting film for a documentary PBS is producing on the system currently in place in the United States to monitor new drugs after they are released.

MeritCare spokeswoman Carrie Johnson said the documentary, tentatively scheduled to air in April, will examine what is known and not known about new drugs, the strengths and weaknesses of our country's system, how drugs are monitored, and the importance of voluntary reporting by medical organizations.

Frontline, which airs on Prairie Public Television Thursdays at 9 p.m., will be focusing on MeritCare's 1997 fen-phen/valvular heart disease discovery as an example of voluntary reporting at its best.

The discovery -- proof positive that the very best medicine is practiced in places like Fargo as well as the Mayo Clinics of the world -- earned MeritCare worldwide attention and led to the removal of fen-phen from pharmacies nationwide.


Johnson said the PBS crew will spend the day filming at both the hospital and the clinic. They will interview Dr. Jack Crary, a MeritCare cardiologist, Karen Berger, an echocardiogram sonographer, and Marlee Siewert, a patient from Jamestown, N.D.

Johnson said the MeritCare discovery process began back in December 1994 with echocardiograms done on two patients by Berger and Pam Ruff, also an echocardiogram sonographer.

But it was Ruff, who now works in pediatrics at the University of South Carolina's medical school, who first noticed what fen-phen was doing to the heart valves of young women. She painstakingly studied several cases.

Ruff, who couldn't make it to Fargo today to be interviewed because of scheduling demands, conducted a two-year study on her own with the blessing of MeritCare's Protocol Review Committee under Dr. Bruce Pitts.

It was Dec. 16, 1996, almost two years to the day after Ruff identified her first case, that Crary realized Ruff had established the link. The results of 13 case studies done at MeritCare were then forwarded to pharmaceutical giant Wyeth-Ayerst, which destroyed the reports.

Eventually, Crary enlisted the considerable reputation of Mayo Clinic to draw attention to a developing public health crisis. Even then, with help from the New England Journal of Medicine, it was nine months before the Federal Drug Administration ordered fen-phen off the market.

Crary and Ruff came in for special attention in "Dispensing with the Truth," a book by Alicia Mundy released last year.

In 1996, some 18 million prescriptions were written for fen-phen. There were thousands of lawsuits filed against the drug manufacturer's parent company, American Home Products.


"I think about what we did back in 1997 from time to time," said Ruff last year. "It makes me feel really good, what we did, working together, within the system."

"This is a perfect example of how we in the medical community -- as individuals -- can really make a difference," said Johnson.

I think that says it all.

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 or

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