The cold numbness swept across June E. Roberts' body for the first time on a morning in November 1976. She thought she had influenza, canceled a long-planned tennis match and crawled back into bed.
It wasn't the flu. It was the rare, paralytic Guillain-Barre syndrome, which she got as a result of being inoculated with the swine flu vaccine.
Now Roberts, 42, once an energetic and successful Northern Virginia women's tennis coach and player, has trouble walking and breathing. "The whole left side of my body . . . just goes limp on me . . . I'm exhausted and not the same person," Roberts testified in a court deposition.
A federal judge in Alexandria last week ordered the U.S. government, which sponsored the mass immunization program, to pay $171,607 in damages in the lawsuit Roberts filed. She will get $128,705, with the rest going for attorney's fees.
The government agreed before a hearing was held in Roberts' lawsuit that her illness was due to the vaccine.
Roberts, who was awarded the sum by U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige, formerly spent hours on the tennis courts each day. She had battled some of the best women's tennis players in the country and had begun to coach teams from the McLean Community Center to several local and regional women's championships.
She was one of an estimated 46 million Americans who got the vaccine in 1976 in response to the government's plea that the inoculation was necessary to head off an expected outbreak of swine flu.
It turned out that few swine flu cases were reported, but the flu shots themselves prompted widespread complaints about serious side effects, including paralysis and death, and the vaccination program was finally suspended.
These complaints have prompted nearly 4,000 claims totaling over $3.5 billion against the government, and still more are expected to be filed.
So far, the government had paid nearly $9 million in settling 238 of the claims brought against it, according to Jeffrey Axelrad, the Justice Department's chief swine flu litigation attorney.
The largest amount paid to a plaintiff so far was $475,000, to a Pennsylania man.
The deluge in law suits led to the establishment of a swine flu "multi-district litigation" committee of 18 lawyers from California to Vermont to coordinate much of the overall pre-trial legal work.
In her deposition, which she gave April 10, Roberts testified she became ill two weeks after she received the vaccine. She could not be reached for comment yesterday.
When she finally ended up in the hospital, Roberts said in the deposition, she could hardly talk and couldn't close her eyes. "I was too scared to sleep . . . I couldn't close my eyes. I was petrified and I was in pain, and All I did was watch the clock . . . Every four hours I could take some medincine," she recalled.
Roberts, who has two teen-aged sons, has recovered and is back living in her McLean home. But, she said in the deposition, life will never be the same for her. "I'll never be the good coach and the good tennis player that I could have been."
She said she has trouble getting enough energy to perform routine household chores. "We eat out at McDonald's quite a bit."
She said she is forced to confine her tennis playing to doubles games and takes a half-hour, once-a-week lesson from a tennis pro. She said she does not even have enough energy to last the entire half-hour lesson. "I come late just so I'm not embarrassed that I have to walk off on the guy," she said.