Twice in his life, Eric Adam has fallen in love at first sight with women who launched him on crusades that other men would have known were impossible.
His first love was a Montana country girl he met at the Veterans Administration hospital in Prescott, where he was drying out an alcohol problem. She lifted him out of drunkenness and despair, but shortly after they settled into a happily-ever-after existence, she died. She had an artificial valve in her heart, and when it exploded, she left Adam's life as suddenly and dramatically as she had entered it.
So Adam set out on a six-year lobbying campaign against the valve's manufacturer, writing letters and making phone calls. He has become a folk hero to those terrified people who still have the potentially fatal heart valves in their chests--and to the personal-injury lawyers who filed their lawsuits. He counseled the heart-valve recipients and their families, and talked reporters into writing about the problem. He prodded the Department of Veterans Affairs into an investigation of the company that manufactured the prosthesis and shoveled facts and figures into a landslide of federal and private lawsuits against the company that, to date, totals more than $200 million.
The second time Eric Adam fell in love, it was with a woman on television, a runner from war-torn Bosnia who was training for the Olympics despite the shooting and shelling in the streets of Sarajevo.
We all saw the news report: the beautiful young heroine racing nervously past bombed-out buildings while small-arms fire ricocheted off-screen. But Adam was so moved by the report that he traveled to Bosnia to find her. He didn't speak her language--nor she his--but within a year, he had brought her back to Prescott. Then he brilliantly packaged her story--and the story of their love affair--for tabloid TV shows and women's magazines and anyone else who would listen. Last New Year's Day, he married her; network news cameras dutifully recorded the event and beamed the images all over the world. He has already sold the movie rights to their tale. Though the film will be about love, Adam's face could never grace the cover of a romance novel. His looks are too plain, his cheeks too pitted. He is 36, just barely middle-aged, of medium height and medium build, and he holds a medium-income job as an audio-visual specialist for the VA. He lives in a modest apartment down a dirt road in Prescott, and he has never made a penny for any of his humanitarian efforts. Eric Adam started life as a Phoenix screw-up and a drunk and a convicted felon. He has no college education, no high social standing, no establishment connections.
Yet like a mathematical savant who can't do basic arithmetic but who can calculate the speed of thought, Eric Adam can navigate the bureaucracy and stonewalling of governments and corporations. Perhaps when one doesn't know what the accepted boundaries, the expected obstacles, are for a task, one can simply go out of bounds and take the straight-line route.
Adam also knows how to work the press, and he's got a fat packet of newspaper, magazine and video clips to prove it. He markets his various stories separately--the heart valve or the Bosnian runner or his latest crusade--never all at once. He prefers the angle that reads like a fairy tale, and if an interviewer strays from the script, Adam goes distant and dreamy, and the interview dissolves into dead air. In fact, when New Times probed too deeply into his past, Adam fired off an irritated letter taking the newspaper to task, saying the information would interfere with the good works he is doing. Such moral indignation fuels, in large part, his tireless crusading.
Eric Adam's compassion seems boundless, infectious. He can make people give up their time and money for a good cause. He has given up all of his own, but he doesn't know why. His wife can't explain it, nor can his parents, but they admire his drive.
"It's a way to channel the energy I've gained since I quit drinking," he says simply, with a 12-Step serenity that is not entirely convincing.
Eric Adam is a compulsive do-gooder. And whatever his motives, he does good well.
Eric Adam was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1958, though he doesn't know who his biological parents were. Gerda and Carl Adam, a German couple who had immigrated to the United States, adopted him from an orphanage when he was 2 years old and brought him to Phoenix.
When Eric was 13, he had a paper route, but he never seemed to have all the money he had earned from it. His mother thought people were shortchanging him when he collected his fees. In fact, he was spending his money on parties, and was already learning to drink.
After Eric graduated from Paradise Valley High School in 1976, he joined the Air Force. Two years later, when he finished his tour, he came home drunk to Phoenix.
"I could drink all day," he says of his early adulthood. His father had given him a job as a gofer in his engineering firm, but then fired him because of his binging.
"I had come to the point where I didn't know what to do," his mother recalls. "I was involved with other parents of drinkers, and I asked, 'What do I do?', and they said, 'Tough love.'"
In October 1980, a binge drove Eric over the edge. He broke into his father's company at night, loaded more than $40,000 worth of equipment into a company truck and drove to Las Vegas. He was so drunk that some of the equipment bounced out of the back of the truck along the way, and when he came out of his blackout, he called a friend in Phoenix and confessed to the crime. Then he dropped out of sight for three years. He ran to California, but the drinking followed him. In 1983, he came back to Phoenix to face the music and was sentenced to probation, bounced listlessly through jobs and treatment programs and racked up a long list of DWIs and other traffic arrests. In 1986, after missing an appointed court date, he landed in jail for a week.
"I had pretty much lost contact with the world," he says. And early that June, when he had hit rock bottom, he enrolled in an alcohol treatment program at the VA hospital in Prescott.
He saw Sylvia "Suzi" Hollowell in the cafeteria serving line. She was a dietitian, and her good looks were hidden by her ugly, green VA uniform, the net that pulled back her hair.
"What got me most was this gleaming smile and a radiance like a glow around her head," he recalls. "She was so full of energy and life, and I was kind of searching for that."
Suzi would find him in the cafeteria and ask how he was. It astounded him, he says. "In the state of mind and low self-esteem I was in, I couldn't understand how anyone in this world would care how I was, because even I didn't care. She was like an angel that was sent from heaven to bring me back to life, because I really had lost everything inside."
At the end of July, as soon as he graduated from the treatment program, Adam asked Suzi out on a date. They drove out to Watson Lake and sat on the hood of his 1972 Chevy and watched a monsoon storm race toward them across sunset skies.
When the wind died down, Eric heard a faint metallic clicking, like that of a car's turn signal, and asked what it was, not imagining that it came out of Suzi. She blushed and said she heard nothing, but a moment later, he said, "There it is again. What is it?"
"Guess," she answered, this time fliply.
Eric thought a bit and suggested a pacemaker; she said heart valve, and that was the end of the conversation.
"It was none of my business," Adam says now. Soon, it would be.
Suzi was 31. She had grown up in Miles City, Montana, and when she was 6 or 7 years old, she came down with rheumatic fever. Her parents had divorced, and she was living with a stepgrandmother who refused to take her to the hospital because she wanted to perform a religious cure. Suzi got sicker, and although she survived, her heart was so badly damaged that she could not ride a bicycle around the block without ending up in the hospital.
In 1981, when she was 26, Suzi had a state-of-the-art prosthetic valve--a Bjork-Shiley Convexo-Concave Heart Valve--implanted between the chambers in the left side of her heart. It transformed her life, turning her into an active, vibrant, physically fit woman.
She'd left Montana only a short time before she met Eric Adam, escaping a long-term live-in relationship she felt was going nowhere. Even though she found Adam on the rebound, she was as eager for romance as he was when they drove the dirt roads out to Watson Lake.
"We got all wet that night and stayed out in the rain," he says. "I went to her place, and we dried out our clothes. And we liked each other right away."
Eric got a job working with a movie crew that was filming in Prescott. He was still living in a VA dormitory, and his night schedule put him in violation of dorm rules. One night, he came back to his room to find his locker cleaned out, so he went back to Suzi's apartment. She saw him out a window as he was getting out of his car, flashed a big smile and came out to help him carry his gear inside.
Adam stayed sober for the next two years. He got a job as a photographer for a Prescott newspaper and threw himself into it. He and Suzi planned to get married, then bought a 40-year-old log cabin beneath the pines, bought it in Suzi's name and on Suzi's good credit, and settled down to live happily ever after.
Two weeks later, she was gone.
On August 18, 1988, Suzi got off work just after 1 in the afternoon. She felt a sudden pain in her chest and a shortness of breath, and she knew what had happened.
"I have a valve problem," she said as she staggered into the emergency room at the hospital where she worked. She was cold and clammy and had no measurable blood pressure. The ER physicians were not sure what to do with her. They put her on oxygen, but she still gasped for breath, and the doctors could only watch helplessly as she thrashed her arms and legs in pain.
A metal strut the size of a grasshopper's leg had broken free from the artificial valve. It held in place a quarter-size disk, a tiny manhole cover that opened and closed with each beat of her heart. When the strut let go, the disk dropped into the lower chamber of the heart and was propelled into her aorta, blocking it completely. Blood backed up behind her heart and filled her lungs.
There was no cardiac surgery unit at the hospital; the only way to save Suzi Hollowell would have been to crack her chest open and remove the obstruction. Forty-two minutes after she walked into the emergency room, her jaws clamped tight, the frothy, pink lung fluid backed up out of her mouth and nose, and her eyes went blank.
Eric handled all of Suzi's funeral arrangements, called all the relatives and escorted her body back to Montana, where she was buried. He thought he'd be able to stay in Suzi's house, but since his name was not on the papers, Suzi's father took it and sold it, and Eric got nothing, even though he'd been making the mortgage payments. Suzi's father also reached a wrongful-death settlement with Shiley, Inc., the manufacturer of the faulty valve and a division of Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical megacorporation. He has not even told Suzi's two brothers the results of that settlement. Eric was out on the street.
"Oh, my God," his mother thought. "Here he'll go drinking again."
But Eric focused his compulsive behavior elsewhere, and decided to learn everything he could about Suzi's death. When he returned from her funeral, he went to the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's Office to talk about her valve failure.
The medical examiner had kept the dissected heart as evidence to be used later in her father's wrongful-death suit. "This was all weird to me, that Suzi's heart was still there," Eric says, but he somehow found it comforting that the most loving part of her was still on this Earth.
Eric drove to Tucson to do research in the medical library at the university there. A librarian turned up ten pages of microfiche on the Shiley heart valve, medical-journal reports of failures and details of early out-of-court settlements. He pored through the information.
"I don't like to read, so it was hard for me," he says. He learned how to file Freedom of Information requests, and sent them to every agency he could think of. There was plenty of information to be had, pieced together from a number of investigations going on. A year before Suzi died, the TV news magazine 20/20 had aired an expos of the Shiley valve, which prodded the Food and Drug Administration into conducting an investigation. Prominent law firms were amassing wrongful-death and psychological-trauma lawsuits. The Ralph Nader consumer group, Public Citizen, was filing suit.
The Convexo-Concave valve had been developed by a Swedish heart surgeon named Viking O. Bjork with the thought that it would be less prone to thrombosis--fatal blood clotting--than other prosthetic valves on the market. It consisted of a tiny ring and a disk that fit into it, held in place by two metal struts shaped like arched eyebrows, one on top, the other on the bottom. One of the struts was cast as an integral part of the ring. The other not only had to be welded on, but it had to be bent back and forth with pliers in order to insert the disk into it. Because of Shiley's flawed manufacturing process and shoddy quality control--as FDA and House of Representatives documents would later allege--some of the welds were cracked, and those cracks were further weakened by the bending during assembly.
The valve would open and close millions of times each year. The stress on the welded strut would force it to give way with no warning. The constant clicking would suddenly stop, and unless the implantee were near an open-heart-surgery hospital, death was certain.
And because the symptoms of valve failure were similar to those of heart attack--these were patients with histories of heart disease, after all--the true nature of the illness would not be discovered until too late, if at all.
As of January 1993, the last date for which figures are available, 501 Bjork-Shiley C-C valves had failed, resulting in 337 deaths. There are an estimated 55,000 such valves still implanted in chests the world over, and, according to estimates from activists, the valves are still failing at a rate of three per month.
Among the documents passing from hand to hand--from doctors to lawyers to activists to valve recipients--were internal Shiley memos from engineers warning of strut flaws, as well as impassioned telexes from Dr. Bjork himself pleading with Shiley executives to stop manufacturing the valve until the problems could be corrected.
"We would prefer that you did not publish the data relative to strut fractures," they wired back.
When a valve failed, Shiley would settle quickly and quietly with the victim's survivors. Although the Bjork-Shiley valve was recalled three times before it was finally taken off the market in 1986, many of the implantees, including Suzi Hollowell, had no idea that the prostheses in their hearts were potentially flawed.
Shiley's preference, which was approved by the FDA, was to notify heart surgeons with blanket mailings of "Dear Doctor" letters. The implantees were not notified directly, even though Shiley tracked the whereabouts of each valve. Activists fear that some implantees still do not know that their valves could fail at any moment.
"At first, my objective was to find all the people who had this valve and try to warn them, so they'd have a better chance of survival than Suzi had," Eric says.
The very next summer, he arranged his own media campaign trip, driving the slow route to Montana, making appointments with every small-town newspaper and radio station along the way, and leaving voluminous packets of information for reporters to work with.
He drove to Los Angeles to meet with attorneys preparing civil cases against Shiley. They, in turn, gave his name to heart-valve support groups, and he started getting calls from all over asking for help and information.
Adam had very few friends and no social life, because he spent all of his spare time and spare change campaigning against Shiley.
He cranked out faxes and letters, nagging, petulant, scolding, pleading letters, ten to 20 per week, to legislators and prosecutors, to the FDA and investigators for the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which was conducting a major investigation that would result in a scathing 1990 report to Congress.
"The only reason I got a registered letter at my front door [about her valve's recall] is because of Eric's push in the Congress," says Sylvia Robinson, an Arkansas implantee who joined in Eric's lobbying efforts.
"With his lobbying and his work with the support groups, he's been the one person who has kept this going," says Jean Thornton, a woman in Maine who has two Shiley valves in her heart; her son had one, also, but it failed and killed him.
Things were coming to a head. In addition to the many wrongful-death and psychological-trauma suits filed against Shiley and Pfizer, a class-action suit filed in Cincinnati in 1992 awarded damages against the valve manufacturers that could total $205 million. That suit has been appealed by other valve recipients, because they say it is not enough money.
That same year, Eric found a single sentence in a recall document stating that 564 Shiley valves had been implanted by VA surgeons. He fired off letters to the Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs and, for back-up, to Senator Dennis DeConcini, asking DeConcini to contact the VA, as well. The VA listened: In 1993, the Inspector General released an investigation report with a preamble that cited Eric's work.
The VA study dovetailed into the FDA and House of Representatives investigations. Finally, last June, Shiley and Pfizer settled with the U.S. Justice Department, paying $10.75 million for costs incurred by the VA and other federal medical programs that implanted Shiley valves, and making other concessions that could amount to a total of $20 million.
Eric Adam is still not satisfied. Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader consumer group, credits him with discovering--through correspondence with Senator John McCain--that in 1991 the FDA had recommended that criminal action be taken against Shiley and that the Justice Department had ruled that the statute of limitations had passed on most of the prosecutable offenses.
Brian Wolfman, an attorney for Public Citizen, still fumes at that assertion. "We think that's outrageous," he says, "and secondly, we're not sure the statutes have expired--like federal racketeering charges."
Adam has continued to press for criminal charges, cajoling state attorneys general, county attorneys. He faxed letters to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno 46 days in a row. "Is there a statute of limitations on murder?" he asks.
Somehow, in the course of his crusade, Eric Adam found time to fall in love again.
In July 1992, he was writing letters while his TV blared in the background. Something caught his ear--CBS News airing a human-interest report about a Bosnian runner training in the streets of Sarajevo. Her name was Mirsada Buric (pronounced "Boo-reach"). She was a 22-year-old Muslim displaced by "ethnic cleansing," but she still hoped to represent her country in the upcoming summer Olympics.
"It was so intense that I had to go around to see who this person was who was defying the bullets and the violence," Adam says. "I had an immediate attraction to her."
Weeks later, when Mirsada reached the Olympics, Adam saw a follow-up story, and was so moved that he called the Olympic Village and managed to get Mirsada's best friend, who spoke English, on the phone. The friend gave him an address so that he could write to Mirsada.
Mirsada had received a number of fan letters from all over the world, and she felt obligated to answer them all. "Someone in America is proud of you," Adam had written, and he signed the letter "Love, Eric."
"I thought it was American custom, so I wrote back 'Love, Mirsada,'" she says now. It was an omen.
Mirsada is now 24. She has a beauty like that of a cubist painting: Her facial features are sharp and foreign, and seem to show all angles at once. She is as lean as a whippet, with a forceful aura and a breathtaking presence.
She began running when she was 11 years old, partly because there were no other sports available in the tiny village outside Sarajevo where her family had lived for hundreds of years.
By the time she was 22, she had been Yugoslavian junior and senior national champion in the 3,000 meters, had been Balkan champion and had performed respectably in the European championships. She was on her way to the Olympics. She was also weeks away from finishing her university degree in sociology and journalism.
When war broke out in April 1992, everything changed.
That she was a Muslim had never mattered before. Suddenly, she could no longer travel safely to the nearby village where her coach lived. She stayed in touch by phone, and trained alone on country roads until even that became too dangerous.
On May 29, "the same people I know for 20 years," the Serbs in the next village, she relates, "attacked my village and surrounded it. They started to shoot, and they destroyed everything."
Her family and her neighbors took shelter in a basement apartment owned by one of her uncles. They covered the walls and windows with sheet metal from heating ducts to guard against stray bullets. On the third night, Mirsada's older brother Mensud, who had been helping to defend the village, came to the apartment and told them they had to flee. They crawled out of town along a muddy road and surrendered to the Serbs. Mensud and the other men of the village were massacred.
Mirsada and her parents spent two weeks in a concentration camp before they were released, but they had no home to return to. The village had been burned to the ground. Because of Mirsada's status as an athlete and Olympic hopeful, the Bosnian government put her up in a hotel in Sarajevo, and she started training alone on the city streets. It was a dangerous task.
Each day, as if she were waiting for rain to stop, she would listen until the heavy shooting subsided, usually at about 7 in the morning, and then dash out furtively, running faster than she should, never letting herself slip into that aerobic trance that athletes call "the zone" for fear that it would be a fatal zone. She had to be back inside by 10 a.m., when the fighting would resume. She was never sure if she'd make it back alive.
"If I just stepped on the track, that moment I would be killed by a sniper," she says. Twice, while she was doing stretching exercises in a city park, sniper bullets whizzed within inches of her head. The soundtrack to the CBS News story is full of crackling gunfire. "I didn't think too much," she says of that time. "If you think, you won't be able to go out."
She was understandably unprepared when she reached Barcelona, Spain, site of the Olympics. "It's the worst that can happen to an athlete, especially a runner," she says. "I was afraid, because I was not ready. But being able to represent my country, to let the whole world see that, look, Bosnia has ten athletes, that was more important than my shape, and that was keeping us all going."
She finished the 3,000-meter race 33rd out of 35 with a time of 10:05, 40 seconds slower than her personal best and a minute slower than her coach thought she could run. Still, because of the earlier TV coverage, she was surrounded by journalists as she crossed the finish line.
Back in Sarajevo, Mirsada answered Eric's letter, and she found it curious when he started writing regularly; it scared her a bit, because he was a stranger, and she could tell he was interested in starting a relationship with her. She fled to Slovenia as a refugee, and one lonely day, as she was going through her address book, she came upon Eric's name and decided to write him another letter.
He fired back four letters in as many days, then called her on the telephone and they fumbled through the best conversation people can have without speaking each other's languages. Eric mailed a photo of himself--or rather a picture of his back as he peered through a video camera with a Hopi Reservation landscape unfolding to the horizon. She was intrigued. So when Eric started writing about coming to Bosnia to look into relief efforts for injured Bosnian children, she did not discourage him.
Eric Adam arrived in Bosnia in January 1993--five months after his first letter to Mirsada--under the pretense of touring refugee camps. He rented a car and hired a translator, did, in fact, visit the camps, and then set out for the four-hour drive to Slovenia to meet Mirsada.
Mirsada made lunch. Eric didn't show up on time, and she fumed until the phone rang at about 4 p.m. He had been tied up at one of the refugee camps. That evening, he finally drove up in his red, Russian rental car, and burst out its door.
Mirsada offered a hand to shake. He grabbed her and embraced her--which she assumed was another crazy American greeting. Then he told her he had only an hour to spend because the translator had to get back to Zagreb.
"I was pissed," she says. "I liked him, and I was surprised how much he really cared about me. I chose to trust him, because I didn't have anybody to trust. I was far from my family and didn't have very many friends." Life during wartime forces a person to make decisions he or she might not make otherwise. "I wanted him to stay with me," she says. He did, and the translator had to wait until morning to get home.
"We became instantly so close," Eric explains. "I was longing for someone in my life, and she was suffering from terrible loneliness and not being able to go on with her career. We were both searching for something, and we found it in each other."
By March, Eric's calls and letters had convinced Mirsada to come to Prescott; the official justification for such a rash act was that Eric could help her reach the media and talk about the plight of her country. She arrived on March 15, and Eric indeed put the media on full alert.
Mirsada taught herself to speak English. One day, while watching a local marathon race, she met Julie Williams, the women's cross-country coach at Yavapai College. Williams offered her a full scholarship on the spot. Mirsada got back in running shape, and by the end of the season, she had taken fourth place in the national junior college championships and sixth in an Arizona invitational race that included runners from major universities. She was offered a full scholarship to a university in Colorado, but chose to return this year to Yavapai College.
On January 1, 1994, she and Eric were married. The wedding was covered by national TV news. Eric landed a segment on the TV show A Current Affair; it portrayed the couple's fairy-tale meeting--without mentioning Eric's other crusade. They appeared on the Leeza Gibbons talk show in a segment about unlikely (but romantic) true loves; the women in the studio audience swooned at the tenderness of Eric's account. The men raised skeptical eyebrows.
But Eric Adam was living happily ever after.
Mirsada sometimes wishes that Eric could stop crusading so she could get to know him better.
"He'll see something on TV," she says, "and the next day, he'll say, 'Oh, I started a new project, but don't worry, you don't have to do anything.'"
It's no joke. A year ago August, he saw news reports on the Mississippi River floods, and the next thing Mirsada knew, they were driving cross-country in a U-Haul truck filled with relief supplies for Midwestern farmers.
He has already brought one injured Bosnian child to Flagstaff for medical treatment. Last month, he helped with a quick collection drive for Rwandan refugees. Last week, he saw a TV report about Cuban refugees at Guantanamo Bay . . .
She doesn't know why Eric carries on his causes. He doesn't know, either. An outsider might question if he's perhaps trying to atone for the sins of his youth. He confesses that if he weren't keeping busy that maybe he'd succumb to drinking again.
Substance abuse is a compulsion, and Adam has redirected that compulsion, used it to expand an innate instinct to do good, an instinct that most of us have, unfortunately, lost.
Mirsada loves him deeply and desperately, but she has her own feelings: a touch of survivor's guilt for her own sudden trip from the hell of Bosnia in wartime to the serenity of Prescott. When she first started training with the Yavapai College cross-country team, her coach says, Mirsada would startle like a war veteran every time a lizard dashed across the trail. Mirsada says she feels a bit like Alice through the Looking Glass, being magically plucked from one world to another. Eric is working to bring Mirsada's sister and her sister's children to Prescott.
And though she loves Eric deeply, Mirsada cringes at the sugar-coated marketing of their love story. Of the Leeza show, for example, she says, "After that interview, I said, 'Eric, I did a job, but I hate it.'"
While Eric has made a conscious choice to focus and refocus on the good deeds he's done and the serenity he feels, Mirsada is still tussling with her past and her future.
And, of course, the ghost of Suzi Hollowell follows them. Eric has no intention of exorcising it. Even Suzi's best friend in Montana has written to him and told him to give it up and go on with his life.
He wrote back, "I have gone on with my life--but this is something I'll never give up.
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