Mom stares down drug company

 READINGTON TWP. -- Marianne Skolek decorated her Christmas tree quite differently this year.

Instead of the brightly-colored ornaments she's used in the past, each branch on this year's evergreen is adorned with a pink silk rose.

"They were Jill's favorite," Skolek says, while admiring one of the buds. "Each one is in her memory."

On April 30, 2002, Skolek's daughter, Jill Carol Skolek, died of respiratory failure at the age of 29. She left behind a son, now 8.

Although it's been nearly two years since her daughter's death, the heartache for Marianne Skolek is still fresh.

The pain is what spurred the Whitehouse Station mother to decorate her tree with pink roses.

It is what spurs the nurse daily to crusade against the company she says murdered her daughter -- Purdue Pharmaceuticals, makers of the controversial drug, OxyContin.

And the anger is what spurred Skolek to recently launch her new Web site, oxydeaths.com.

"I want to be in their faces every day," she said. "They already took Jill from me. There's nothing else they can take. I'm ready for them."

Skolek launched oxydeaths.com the day after Thanksgiving as a way to present all the research she has compiled in the last year and a half and to call on others to take action.

At the top of each page is a picture of Jill Skolek. The home page reads, "This site has nothing to do with grieving. It has to do with justice."

For Skolek, justice will be served when the FDA places stronger regulations on the painkiller and Purdue Pharmaceuticals admits the drug is "addictive," not just "abusive."

Skolek says her daughter should never have been given OxyContin for the pain she suffered as a result of a back injury. In taking a daily dose comparable to about 16 Percocets, she said her daughter became addicted.

"This drug should not be marketed for moderate pain," Skolek said.

Oxycontin spokesman Tim Bannon said he has not seen the Web site, but he plans to check it out.

"I certainly respect her right to express herself in whatever manner she wishes," Bannon said.

Skolek has also taken recourse by writing hundreds of letters to the attorneys general in all 50 states, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Congress and the Food and Drug Administration demanding that they stop turning a blind eye to what she says is an OxyContin epidemic.

It was announced this month that a U.S. congressional panel will hold hearings in February to investigate the national outbreak of OxyContin addiction and abuse. The first hearing will be held in Orlando.

Skolek is hoping to testify.

In her home state of New Jersey, she has met with U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, D-NJ, to request that he push for hearings similar to those that will be held in Florida.

David Wald, Corzine's communications director, said the U.S. Senate did hold OxyContin hearings in February 2002, just months before Jill Skolek died.

To aid Skolek in her fight, Wald said their office plans to send a letter to Congressman Mike Ferguson, R-NJ, asking that he recommend to the House sub-committee chairman that Skolek be able to testify. Ferguson represents Whitehouse Station.

"We think she needs to be heard," Wald said. "Ms. Skolek is a very powerful and articulate woman on this subject."

Aside from the upcoming hearings, Skolek is encouraged by the hundreds of Oxycontin lawsuits under way around the nation.

She's been asked several times to join in filing a lawsuit, but refused.

"I'd have to be quiet and I don't want to be quiet," Skolek said.

About 300 lawsuits are currently pending against Purdue Pharmaceutical over OxyContin, according to Bannon.

Another 65 cases have been dismissed by courts across the country and Bannon said he expects the trend of dismissals to continue.

"The message from this number of dismissals is that the appropriate use of OxyContin did not injure persons in these lawsuits. These dismissals make that very clear," he said.

If OxyContin was so good, Skolek said it would not be devastating the country the way that it is.

She knows it's not going to take just one lawsuit or one series of congressional hearings to prompt the reform needed, but a nationwide movement.

"This is not just one battle. It's a war. And it's going to take a lot of battles in a lot of different arenas to win the war," Skolek said.

To do her part, she plans to keep the issue in the public eye.

"I will do everything I can to call attention to every attorney general, to Congress, the Senate and the FDA that they have allowed this company to run rampant," she said.

Skolek is especially disturbed that a new Purdue Pharmaceuticals drug called Palladone is being reviewed by the FDA, which she said can have the same devastation potential as OxyContin if it is also approved for moderate pain.

"It's going to make Oxycontin look like a day at the beach," she said.

Purdue Pharmaceuticals official Jim Heins said he could not speak in depth about Palladone until it is approved, but he did say it is a needed drug.

"We, of course, offer our sincere condolences to anyone who has lost a loved one to a drug overdose, but we have to be mindful of those who suffer from consistent pain that can only be alleviated by these types of pain medications," he said. "Patient access, where appropriate, shouldn't be restricted."

Skolek said the company needs to be stopped before more people die. That is her No. 1 mission.

"If it was just Jill, I could sit back and say it was just an accident, but there are hundreds of victims with their own horror stories," she said.

"Purdue Pharmaceuticals has been built on a house of cards and it's going to come tumbling down."