Transforming Pain Into Purpose: Kim Witczak Fights for Drug Safety Reform
By Chris Olsen
Trigger Warning: This story contains references to mental health and suicide and may be triggering to some readers.
Kim Witczak’s job required her to travel all over the world to work on film and photo shoots for big brands. A business trip in 2003 should’ve been like the others. But before she left, her typically laid-back husband, Woody, wasn’t himself. He’d landed his dream job but wasn’t sleeping. A month earlier, he was prescribed Zoloft, an antidepressant. He wasn’t depressed and didn’t have a history of depression, but his physician said it would take the edge off and help him sleep. A week before her trip, Woody fell to the kitchen floor clutching his head begging Kim to help him. They called the doctor, who said it would take time for the drug to kick in. Now Kim was working 700 miles from home and Woody wasn’t responding to messages. She asked her dad to check on him and when he called back, the news was something she never imagined. Woody had taken his own life at 37 years old.
In an instant, Kim’s world came crashing down. As she scrambled to get home, her brother-in-law began researching antidepressants and suicide. He learned about Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hearings regarding a link between Prozac and suicide. Drug makers were ordered to do a study, but it was more than a decade later and no black box warning (BBW) had been issued about serious potential adverse reactions to antidepressants. When the coroner suggested Zoloft may have had something to do with Woody’s suicide, Kim made it her mission to get to the bottom of it.
She worked with an attorney to file a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court. She sat in on hearings in Washington, D.C., and learned about drug laws. She became the voice of the voiceless, speaking out for Woody and others who’d lost their lives as unwitting drug company test subjects. She launched Woody Matters, an organization dedicated to educating consumers, advocating for patients and families, and influencing drug safety reform.
In 2004, the FDA finally issued a BBW regarding the increased risk of suicidality in children using antidepressants. Two years later, the warning was extended to include teens and young adults. Meanwhile, Kim’s legal team gained access to reams of sealed documents from the makers of Zoloft confirming they knew about the suicide risk and kept it secret. The case was settled out of court. And as Kim saw the inner workings of the American health care system, she realized the extent of its brokenness. It fueled her to keep fighting for change.
Today, thanks to the efforts of Kim and others, change is slowly happening. Consumers are getting smarter. Laws are being enacted to protect them. But there is always more work to do. If Kim ever doubts the difference one person can make when taking on a giant industry, she reminds herself of a time when a media conglomerate proposed a second cell phone tower near her and Woody’s home, and Woody decided to fight it. She asked if it would be worth the effort and he said: “I’d rather try like hell and lose than do nothing at all.” The request to build the tower was denied. And Woody’s words are now the mantra that guide Kim every day.
PC: Woody Matters
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story and Publish Her as platforms for doing so.