It was a sleepy Sunday morning in 1969 when a 29-year-old San Jose mother of three woke up to a surging headache, unbearable to the point where she rushed herself to the hospital.
The woman’s mysterious and ferocious pain perplexed doctors, who were stunned by the sight of her head swelling up like a balloon — eyes bulging out of her sockets — as the blood clots turned her pale, milk-colored skin tone into a bright reddish hue.
The episode kept her in the hospital for about three weeks, where doctors administered an aggressive treatment of antibiotics and blood thinners, before she was finally sent home. But the trauma stripped her of her sight, leaving her completely blind.
“It was so bad that all I remember was a blinding light,” recalled the San Jose woman, Michelle Ahearn, now 80. “The doctors had never seen anything like it before — it was something very rare and unusual and they were all scratching their heads.”
After 2 1/2 years of taking a revolutionary new pill, Ortho-Novum, one of the most popular birth control pills for women in the 60s, Ahearn would’ve never guessed the new drug was the cause of her blindness — until a young, small-time attorney and family friend, Sal Liccardo, stepped into the picture. He warned her the pill could have side effects that provoked the immense blood clotting in her skull.
Liccardo, a prominent South Bay attorney, is the father of San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, also an attorney.
But the popular contraceptive didn’t come with a list of side effects that could warn a person prone to blood clots of its potential danger. It was then that the family decided to sue.
“The guiding fact is, it was too late for me and I had a responsibility to get the word out to other women,” Ahearn said. “I could not walk away from it.”
Now, after more than 50 years, Liccardo has finally put the turbulent story on paper, detailing the case against health care giant Johnson & Johnson in his new book, “Her Right To Know,” which came out last October.
He was reunited with Ahearn on Thursday morning in San Jose at a promotional event for the book.
“‘Her Right to Know,’ as the title says — it’s up to a woman if she wants to take that risk. It’s between her and her doctor to take the pill,” Liccardo said. “The decision should not be made by the Board of Directors (of Johnson & Johnson), which was all male at the time.”
The landmark lawsuit, which lasted seven years, shook one of the most admired companies in America at the time to its core, eventually forcing Johnson & Johnson to put warning labels on its birth control products. Despite the tremendous resistance he faced from the New Jersey- based pharmaceutical company, Liccardo said the landmark case propelled his career away from personal injury claims into the realm of product liability, which led him to sue other big names in the medical industry.
“It was a true David and Goliath story to the bitter end,” Liccardo said. “In those days the only other products Johnson & Johnson produced were safe things like band aids and baby oil. They were ‘motherhood’ and ‘apple pie’ in society — no one suspected that their corporate greed would take over.”
“It was the most devastating catastrophe that could happen to me besides actually dying,” Ahearn added. “It was emotional, I could make myself cry if I bring up different things. I can’t say it enough, (Liccardo) put everything out there — he believed in it, then I believed in it.”
Liccardo is currently working on his second book about a major case he took on in Los Angeles representing a woman with silicone breast implants who claimed the surgery led to several injuries.
Click here to learn more about Liccardo’s new book, “Her Right to Know.”