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Published: Saturday, 4/17/2004

Martha's ordeal shared by patients awaiting ImClone drug

BY MARY KAY GLEASON SANFORD
Mary Kay Gleason Sanford Mary Kay Gleason Sanford
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TO THE delight of humdrum Americans who enjoy the brief rush of superiority when celebrities are brought to their knees, a New York jury deemed Martha Stewart "guilty" of obstructing a federal investigation related to the trade of ImClone stock.

Despite two years of media attention amid dozens of high-profile, corporate ethics missteps, few of us truly expected a verdict that could send Martha to the big house.

Now she awaits sentencing. Prison. Community service. Probation. Court costs and a hefty fine. Perhaps a combination of all of the above. Sentencing options are plentiful.

The definitive question is: Will the punishment fit the crime?

Now that Martha has been knocked off her sterling pedestal, the flurry of former fans seeking a celebrity blood-letting needs to stop.

Martha's unlawful ills, rooted in arrogance and greed, could have been cured with a healthy dose of truth-telling serum and genuine compassion.

After all, much more was at stake than falling stock prices. Thousands of lives hung in the balance - mine included - while the government and pharmaceutical industry waded through the sordid details of this scandal.

The message from the jury was clear. Refusing to come clean with authorities is an offense not to be taken lightly and the public is demanding that Martha pay the piper.

But what about her assault on thousands of persons with cancer awaiting access to Erbitux, ImClone's innovative monoclonal antibody?

Human life vs. life savings. Has this unlikely comparison escaped the minds of jurors and judge?

Many observers of Martha's journey down the path to justice, including medical professionals, are questioning the severity of her treatment and speculating on her pending sentence.

Yet they do not condone her antics, nor do they overlook her role, knowing or unknowing, in shutting down ground-breaking clinical trials for a new type of medication to treat advanced colorectal cancer.

While WorldCom, Enron, and Tyco executives wiggle through the system with hopes of slithering through the fingers of justice, Martha is poised for the worst possible punishment. But is this necessary? How will society benefit from putting Martha behind bars for a year or two?

Her association with the Waksal brothers at the helm of ImClone led to the downfall of many, including Martha herself. In their pursuit to make a killing from ImClone stock, research was conducted unethically and results were eventually questioned by the FDA.

This was the beginning of the end for Martha and her friends.

It also was the beginning of a two-year nightmare for medical oncologists and their patients.

Just as physicians were gearing up to administer Erbitux to some of their most critically ill patients, stories describing the derailment of Erbitux began showing up on entertainment news pages and becoming fodder for morning shock jocks and late-night comedians.

Not everyone was laughing. An industry held in high esteem had been sucker-punched and had a hard time getting back on its feet.

The result of Martha's indiscretions, along with those of former ImClone CEO Sam Waksal, was more than a two-year delay in bringing a promising drug to market.

This caveat, however, seemed to get lost as details of the complicated case were translated for public consumption.

Clinical trials were suspended and Erbitux became unavailable, even on a compassionate-use basis for individuals who had exhausted all other treatment options. On a broader level, the credibility of clinical trials in general was called into question.

Having followed this situation meticulously since the last week of December 2001, I grew skeptical about Erbitux and questioned whether its viability would ever be tested among colorectal cancer survivors like me.

Fortunately I gained access to Erbitux through a clinical trial last November and was amazed by the uncanny overlap of events in February as Erbitux gained FDA approval while prosecutors presented their case against Martha.

My experience on the hidden side of this issue provides a unique perspective of Martha's continuing legal struggle. As frustrating as it was to be denied access to Erbitux when it was rumored to give persons in my predicament a new ray of hope, I cannot see any value to our society by subjecting Martha to time in prison.

Though she did not single-handedly bring ImClone's progress with Erbitux to a halt, Martha Stewart will forever be associated with the unfortunate incident. This notoriety is inescapable.

So what better way could Martha make amends than to roll up her cashmere sleeves and offer a hand to oncology patients? Reaching out to those most affected by the ImClone scandal is an ideal way for Martha to repay her debt to society over the next five to 10 years.

Mandatory service to those in need of a helping hand before, during, and following cancer treatments can ease the burden of patients and their caregivers and may soften Martha's steely persona, heightening her awareness of the human factor in all phases of life, even business transactions.

Beyond the human service aspect of a sentence requiring Martha to dedicate her time, talent, and treasure to help those with cancer, her celebrity may help the average person focus on important messages related to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer in an era when the disease is approaching epidemic proportions.

What good will come from Martha taking up residence in a federal lockup?

I believe it is possible for Martha to repay her debt to society in a kinder and gentler manner.

Maybe Judge Cedarbaum will agree.

Mary Kay Gleason Sanford of Toledo is a colorectal cancer survivor who has participated in a clinical trial featuring Erbitux, the ImClone drug at the center of the Martha Stewart scandal.



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