Agents with the FBI are knocking on the doors of Tennesseans sickened or widowed by fungal meningitis as the agency conducts a criminal probe into the outbreak that sickened 751 people nationwide with 64 deaths.
The outbreak was traced to contaminated steroid medicine made by Massachusetts-based New England Compounding Center that was used in spinal injections as pain treatment. Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is leading the investigation.
Joan Peay of Nashville, who survived one round of fungal meningitis in 2012 only to relapse with a more severe case a year later, said she met Tuesday with an FBI agent from Massachusetts.
"They are creating a criminal case against New England Compounding Center," Peay said. "They are just at the point now where they are interviewing patients."
Questions from the agent concerned how she contracted the illness and how it affected her, she said. Other victims in Middle Tennessee also have been contacted by the FBI.
Tennessee was the second-hardest hit state, with 153 illnesses and 16 deaths. Michigan had 264 illnesses and 19 deaths.
No charges have been filed yet in the criminal probe, but hundreds of people have filed civil suits against NECC, which has filed for bankruptcy, and its owners.
On Monday, Massachusetts U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Henry J. Boroff gave preliminary approval to a settlement of more than $100 million that lawyers agreed to in December from the bankruptcy proceedings, said Mark Chalos of Nashville, who is one of seven lawyers appointed to the plaintiffs' steering committee. However, he said that was just one more step in an ongoing legal process.
The victims' fund set up by the Massachusetts bankruptcy court will receive money from cash contributions by the owners of the compounding pharmacy as well as the proceeds from insurance, tax refunds and the sale of assets.
The proceedings from the bankruptcy case have no direct bearing on suits that have been filed against suppliers and health care providers that sold or used the tainted medicine. Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgical Center and its owners are among the defendants in those cases.
A total of 113 Tennessee victims have filed claims in the bankruptcy proceeding because of family deaths or personal injuries. Joan Peay is one of those.
She said the back-to-back bouts with spinal meningitis had damaged her hearing, impaired her short-term memory and aged her 10 years. The second bout put her "twitching and mumbling" in a hospital bed.
"The second time, I was in the hospital for two months," she said. "I don't remember anything about the whole month of October of last year."
Her doctor took her off antifungal medications six weeks after she tested clear of the infection with her first illness. The second time, she stayed on the antifungals for three months afterward. She took her last dose in April, but is still being tested to make sure the infection doesn't come back.
"I'm going to have another test next week," Peay said.