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Posted on Mon, Aug. 02, 2004

Delayed hearing could be deadly


The garage where Julie Woodward took her life is gone now, bulldozed by her grieving parents, as though that could erase what happened there.

Just over a year ago, on July 22, 2003, the 17-year-old North Penn High School junior hanged herself in the garage behind the family's house in North Wales. Her father found her body the next morning.

No parent can understand a child's suicide, but Julie's death was particularly puzzling. A bookworm who studied Latin, Julie had always been cautious and reserved and never impulsive. "She had no history whatsoever of self-harm or suicide," her father, Tom Woodward, said last week.

Julie was planning to leave on a college-hunting trip with her family later that week. In her journal, found after her death, she dreamed of a happy future of marriage and babies.

"She was just a very bright, self-preserving kid," her mother, Kathy, said.

What could lead such a child to kill herself? The day after Julie's death, the Woodwards got a possible clue. Their neighbor, North Wales Mayor Douglas Ross, shared information he had spent the night gleaning off the Internet. It linked a class of antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) with suicidal impulses in children.

A difficult transition

Julie, a pretty girl with sand-blonde hair that fell to her shoulders, had been not only a child model but, as her parents describe her, a model child.

But the year before her death, she transferred from a small all-girls school to sprawling North Penn High, where she struggled to fit in. She became unhappy, withdrawn and irritable. Her parents took her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed depression and prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft.

Tom Woodward said doctors assured him that Zoloft was "mild, very safe, and essential to her treatment."

Seven days after she began the medication, Julie killed herself. Her parents are convinced there's a link. "If Julie had never taken Zoloft, she would be alive today," Tom Woodward said. "I am 100 percent sure of that."

They found a champion in U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, a Bucks County Republican and longtime children's advocate. As chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Greenwood had led high-profile probes into Enron, Martha Stewart and human cloning.

Six months after Julie's death, Greenwood announced that his committee would investigate the link between antidepressants and youth suicide.

The hearing was scheduled for July 20, and the Woodwards planned to attend. "We were looking at this as a watershed moment," Tom Woodward said.

An abrupt change of plans

But the day before the hearing, Greenwood informed the Woodwards that the hearing was being postponed for unspecified reasons.

Only later would they learn that, a few days earlier, Greenwood had quietly decided to leave Congress to accept a $650,000-a-year job - that's more than four times his congressional salary - as president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group that represents numerous pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, maker of Zoloft, the drug Julie took before her death. A Pfizer vice president serves on the group's 46-member board of directors, which selected Greenwood.

The Woodwards felt betrayed and called the job offer on the eve of the hearing "very suspicious."

In a telephone conversation with Greenwood on the anniversary of Julie's death, Kathy Woodward accused Greenwood of allowing the pharmaceutical industry to buy his silence. "I think he sold out all the victims and future victims," she said.

Greenwood, in a 90-minute interview with me Friday, strongly denied any nefarious undertones to his new career choice. He defended his actions as ethical and said the Woodwards' accusations are based on a groundless conspiracy theory that began circulating on the Internet after he announced his new job.

Besides, he added, the hearing was merely postponed until after the August recess. In tomorrow's column, I will let Greenwood explain in detail.

As for the Woodwards, they believe every day Congress delays is a day another Julie could end up dead.


Contact John Grogan at 610-313-8132 or jgrogan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/grogan.

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