Doctor for woman at trial against J&J says patient's mesothelioma incurable

By John Sammon | Feb 14, 2019

ALAMEDA – A doctor brought as a witness for plaintiff Terry Leavitt said on Wednesday Leavitt has three months to live without further treatment for the mesothelioma she claims she contracted from Johnson & Johnson baby powder, but perhaps a year or longer if treated with a newly developed immunotherapy.

“There’s no cure; she will die of this disease (mesothelioma),” Dr. Barry Horn told a jury.

Leavitt is suing Johnson & Johnson alleging asbestos in its talc powder caused her disease. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the linings of the lungs and can take up to 20 years or longer to develop from first asbestos exposure to the onset of disease.

The trial in the Alameda Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

Leavitt’s attorney Joseph Satterley asked Horn, a Bay Area pulmonologist and critical care specialist, if he had examined Leavitt.

“Yes,” Horn said. 

Satterley asked Horn what type of mesothelioma Leavitt has.

“She has biphasic mesothelioma,” Horn answered.

Biphasic mesothelioma is also called a “mixed” mesothelioma and is a combination of malignant cells called epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. Horn described the cells as large and narrow-looking in shape.  

Horn added that because Leavitt had gotten aggressive and appropriate treatment including surgery, her chances of longer survival have increased. However, the disease is incurable and will eventually recur.

In 2016 Leavitt complained of increasing back pain and an operation was scheduled but during a pre-operative chest X-ray a dense mass above the woman’s diaphragm was discovered, a lesion that was found to be malignant. In July of 2017 Leavitt underwent surgery to remove her pleura.

Her length of survival can range from 12 to 28 months, Horn said.

He also said that a newly developed type of immunotherapy drug called “Opdivo” might give her a longer survival term. The drug is designed to enhance the body’s immune system to fight the disease.

“Some have had a dramatic (improved) response to it (immunotherapy) while others have not,” Horn said.

“Have you looked at Mrs. Leavitt’s medical bills?” Satterley asked.

“Yes,” Horn said. 

Horn estimated the total in medical bills at $291,000.

Satterley asked Horn what the future bills could cost.

“No one can tell you precisely,” Horn said.

Horn said a positron emission tomography (PET) scan used in the treatments Leavitt was receiving cost $4,900 every three months they were given. Hospice care, care for terminally ill patients in the Bay Area he said costs approximately $250 per visit.

He said the treatments could cost up to $1 million including immunotherapy.

Satterley asked how Leavitt had suffered during the ordeal.

“The major problems are fatigue and shortness of breath,” Horn said, “not pain.”

“Does she walk with a cane?” Satterley asked.

“Yes,” Horn answered.

“What is her prognosis?”

“She’ll die,” Horn said. “The surgeon couldn’t remove all of it (tumor). You can prolon, you don’t cure.”

Susan Leavitt the mother of Terry Leavitt appeared as a plaintiff witness and described for the jury how she used to powder her daughter as an infant in the 1960s in the Philippines where her husband David was a U.S. serviceman.

She was asked how many times a day she powdered Terry Leavitt.

“Approximately seven times a day,” Susan Leavitt answered.

Leavitt said she continued to use the baby powder after moving to the U.S. and after Terry was no longer in diapers.

The exhibition of photos showing her family, daughters Terry and a new-born (Nicole), brought tears to Susan Leavitt’s eyes.

“We always made Terry part of the new baby’s (Nicole's) life,” Leavitt said. “Terry has been a very happy baby and an adult. She always looked for the good things in life.”

She attributed Terry’s upbeat personality to her father.

Leavitt was asked if there had been a warning label on a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby powder would she have used the product.

“No,” she answered.

From the start of the trial defense attorneys have contended the family’s house in Fremont is close to factories - one run by the Flintkote Co. processing vermiculite for use in roofing materials which could have been the source of Terry Leavitt’s mesothelioma, not from baby powder.

Susan Levitt said she was unaware of the factories which she said were located across a freeway in the nearby community of Newark.

“Did you ever see a cloud of dust from the factories?” Leavitt was asked.

“No,” she answered.

Leavitt said neither she nor her children had been near the factories.  

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