Prescription that ended a healthy young life

Clare Garner reports on how the Pill killed a 22-year-old woman
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The Independent Online
Rachael Ashbrook was a healthy young woman who did not smoke, drink or have "any problems whatsoever". At 22 she was prescribed the contraceptive pill Femodene. Within four months she was dead.

At first her family thought her sudden death was "one in a million". Yesterday's announcement confirmed their conviction that it had been no freak incident.

In May 1991, Miss Ashbrook went on holiday to Cornwall. After climbing St Michael's Mount she collapsed. "She appeared to be having some sort of fit," said her brother Wayne, 35. "Passers-by tried to revive her but at one point one of them said she had died and they lost her. She stopped breathing. She was taken to Truro hospital and put on a ventilator. At this point her heart was fluctuating. She was drifting out of life and death."

The intensive care unit contacted her family. "They told us they didn't know why it had happened but that her heart had stopped beating," Mr Ashbrook said. "That was on the Sunday and by Wednesday they had taken her off the ventilator. She could breath unaided but that was all she could do. She was fed by a drip and they said she had extensive brain damage."

Miss Ashbrook was transferred to a hospital near her home, the Countess of Chester, in Cheshire, where she remained until she died six weeks later. An inquest concluded that death was caused by pulmonary embolism.

It was only then that the truth started to emerge. "There is no history of heart problems in the family," Mr Ashbrook said. "There was no connection made with the Pill until afterwards when the consultant at the hospital wrote to my mother to explain things. His exact words were that death was almost certainly contributed to by usage of the Pill. My sister's GP told my mother had she not been on the Pill she would be alive today."

Miss Ashbrook had just started a job as a clerk at a packaging company in the Wirral. Previously she had studied business at Chester College. "Everybody who knew her liked her. She was beautiful, intelligent and sensible. She had a strong sense of justice and fairness. If she felt someone had been wronged she would campaign on their behalf," Mr Ashbrook said.

Miss Ashbrook's mother, Sylvia, 60, broke down in tears when she heard the Government's announcement yesterday. "I can't say that the news brings everything back because it's never away from us. I feel bitter that Rachael's life was cut off at such an early age but we've done everything we can to stop that Pill and save other girls' lives. Even though it's painful we feel there are certain things we have had to do, like go on the television.

"Just because the company was making money it wouldn't listen to ordinary people. If there was any doubt about the Pill it should have been banned immediately."

Last year Roselie Houghton, a Bradford solicitor who represents similar cases, contacted the family. It was too long after Rachael's death to take legal action; all they wanted was to get the drug off the market.

"We had been given the impression that Rachael's death was one in a million. We didn't realise there were so many similar cases and that seemingly it was this type of Pill that was doing it. The evidence is overwhelming," Mr Ashbrook said.

After her death Rachael's mother kept all her possessions, including her bag from her final holiday. She did not go through them because it would have been too upsetting. "When Wayne raised the question of which Pill Rachael had taken I was able to take out the Femodene," she said. "Obviously it was a nightmare at first. Eventually it has turned to anger."

In August Schering, the company that makes Femodene, was represented on a World in Action inquiry into the scandal. "To hear the Schering man on television saying he has no qualms about the Pill being safe and then the news today makes you angry," Mrs Ashbrook said. "It reached a pitch when they could no longer ignore it but in that time more women have lost their lives."