Image: Diana Levine
Toby Talbot  /  AP
The Supreme Court upheld a $6.7 million jury award to Diana Levine, who lost her arm because of a botched injection of an anti-nausea medication.
updated 3/4/2009 6:08:07 PM ET 2009-03-04T23:08:07

Some people would give their right arm for $6 million. Diana Levine would prefer the arm.

The 63-year-old musician, who won a $6.7 million award after a botched injection led to the amputation of her right arm, won a legal victory Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the award against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. Elated though she is, she’d still rather have her arm back — if only she could.

“People say that: ‘I would give my right arm.’ They might even say ‘I would give my right arm for $6 million. I say I would give $6 million for MY right arm. I’d much rather have that,” she said.

Levine, a professional musician, played guitar, piano and bass in a band and performed for children before her world fell apart in 2000. Suffering from a migraine headache, she went to a clinic in nearby Plainfield and was given painkillers and received an intramuscular injection of Phenergan.

When she still felt nauseated, she was given an “IV-push” of the drug, with the second injection accidentally puncturing an artery. Gangrene set in. Several weeks later, the arm was amputated.

“It basically took away my whole musical identity. I’d been playing music for 30 years, working with kids, writing songs. I played guitar, piano, bass in a rock band. I couldn’t do any of those things anymore,” she said Wednesday.

A huge loss
She lost more than her music and her livelihood.

Image: Diana Levine
Toby Talbot  /  AP
Levine, a musician, says losing her arm “basically took away my whole musical identity.”
Suddenly, what was routine became a challenge. The drawers in her 150-year-old farmhouse needed two hands to be opened. A left-hander, she still had one hand to use, but she relied on it to compensate so much, she injured it with overuse.

She couldn’t shovel, or scrape ice off the windshield of her — a real handicap in her rural Vermont home, which is a half-mile up a dirt road and blanketed in snow from November to April. In summer, she can’t open a window without help.

“Nobody, nobody understands what it’s like to just operate with one hand. Everything you do requires two hands, even when you think you only need one,” she said.

For years, Levine wondered whether drug maker Wyeth Pharmaceuticals would ever be held accountable.

On Wednesday, they were. In a 6-3 decision, the nation’s highest court turned away Wyeth’s claim that federal approval of Phenergan and its warning label should have shielded the company from lawsuits like Levine’s.

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Levine broke down in tears when a reporter called her with the news.

“My knees were buckling, and I was crying. The people that were here thought something horrible had happened. Until I said ‘I’m so happy.’ Then, they knew.”

‘Good for her spirit’
These days, she gets physical therapy for her remaining hand and welcomes the big-money award both for the vindication it represents and the practical obstacles it can help eliminate. For one thing, she’ll build a garage.

And she’ll buy a new prosthetic for her hand. She might even get her car adapted so she doesn’t have to use her left hand to reach across the steering column to reach the ignition.

“Just in terms of my life, I have so much stress, being one-handed. This takes away from my economic stress and allows me to do things. ... This’ll help get your car adapted, this’ll help get a garage. This’ll help get drawers you can open without two hands, this’ll help you open your windows, this’ll help you hire somebody to help you with your filing and help you with your lifting, so you don’t hurt your (remaining) hand more,” she said.

Levine, who lives alone, says she’ll be depressed less often, now that the weight of the case no longer hovers over her life.

“It’s very good for her spirit,” said daughter Jassamine Levine, 26. “Both of our spirits were wibbling and wobbling, like ‘How can this be possible, that a company could value money and power over what’s right?’ It’s pretty unfathomable.

“But the fact that the justice system worked, it’s pretty impressive,” she said.

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