Susan Furlough is a reluctant advocate.
The Howard County mother and pediatric nurse said she could never have imagined herself playing a prominent role in a charged public debate. But with her 19-year-old son, Ryan, serving a life sentence for the poisoning death of his best friend - a murder Furlough is convinced is linked to her son's use of the antidepressant Effexor - she has thrust herself into the limelight.
At first, her efforts were limited to letters to a couple of interested congressmen, statements to reporters and talks with others concerned about the possible link between antidepressants and suicide. But this week, she emerged very publicly, testifying before an advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration meeting in Bethesda, where she urged the agency to take the drugs off the market.
And even though the panel recommended Tuesday that the agency require the strongest possible caveat - called "black box" warnings - about the possible link to suicidal behavior in children and adolescents on the drug labels, for Furlough, it's not enough.
For her, there is a clear answer: The drugs don't belong on the marketplace.
"I feel I have to prevent this from happening to someone else so no other mother has to go through this," she said.
And nothing, she said, will steer her from her conviction that Ryan, the youngest of a blended family and her only child with second husband, Tom, would never have killed if not for Effexor, a drug with possible links to suicidal behavior and hostility in users.
Her sentiment is far from accepted in Howard County, where prosecutors convinced jurors that Ryan Furlough's crime was meticulously planned. Not only did Furlough spend months researching the best way to kill, he failed at his first attempt to poison 17-year-old Ben Vassiliev - but succeeded a few weeks later in January last year, they said. Jurors rejected the argument that Effexor affected Ryan's state of mind.
"It's very difficult for a mother to understand that her son would choose to kill someone, but that's exactly what happened," said Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone. "This was a very diabolical, well-planned and -researched homicide."
Ben Vassiliev's father, Walter Vassiliev, said he believes Susan Furlough is trying to shift the blame for the crime away from her family. He said he sees Ryan Furlough as an evil being who purposely took Ben's life.
"This is trying to shift responsibility to someone or something else other than themselves," he said.
But Susan Furlough, 59, says she believes that her son had no control over what he did and that something should have been done about the drugs long before her son was given them.
In that, she has plenty of company.
At an hours-long hearing Monday, parent after parent testified about what they said were the evils of antidepressant drugs - medicines they blame for suicides and suicide attempts, and for acts of violence that have landed sons and daughters in deep trouble.
They say that there is no other explanation and that their children, some as young as 11 and 12, would never have taken their own lives - or in Ryan's case, someone else's - without outside influence.
"Candace was never depressed. She was a happy, beautiful child who had school anxiety," said Mathy Milling Downing of Montgomery County. Her 12-year-old daughter, who had been taking Zoloft, hanged herself in January.
Theirs has become a brotherhood, of sorts - a nationwide group headed by a longtime Utah-based critic of the drugs, Ann Blake Tracy.
Mark Miller, who maintains the Web site for the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, said the families are all looking for the source of a pain they never saw coming.
"It's a community searching for support and looking for answers," said Miller, of Overland Park, Kan., whose 13-year-old son was on Zoloft for one week when he killed himself in 1997.
By the time Susan Furlough became involved in that community this spring, she had done research on Effexor. Devastated by what her son had done, she searched for answers.
Ryan, she said in an interview, had been a gentle son growing up, albeit one who had a tough time with school. He first started taking antidepressants in spring 2001 and was on Effexor by the end of that year. When there was no improvement, his doctor upped the dosage. With her own health issues splitting her attention, Furlough, a nurse, said she trusted the doctor's advice.
Ryan became a walking zombie who never hugged back in the months leading up to the homicide, she said. He stopped playing golf with his father and going to computer shows.
"I didn't notice all that until this happened, and I stepped back and said, 'Where has our son been?' " she said. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness. How could I have been so blind?' "
After Ben's death, she read what she could find. She said she found the "fine print" on the drug - that Effexor has been linked to hostility.
Her research and seeing her son off antidepressants convinced her that the drugs were the cause, she said. When she visits him at the Maryland House of Correction Annex, she said, she sees the son she knew before the drugs.
'I can't drop this'
And so, the nurse who said she had limited her advocacy to quiet support for her pediatric patients at St. Agnes HealthCare spoke out to reporters after her son's trial in May and again after his sentencing in July. When she found out about this week's hearings, she asked to be put on a list of speakers.
She was petrified, she said. The idea of talking to even dozens of people was enough to make her heart pound. Her fear was so great that, years ago, she chose not to pursue a bachelor's degree after nursing school just to avoid speech class.
But she felt a need to quell her fear and speak.
"These drugs change kind, gentle children into monsters," she told committee members Monday after reading a letter from her son. "Please listen now before it happens to your family."
With the committee hearing over, Furlough said she's not sure what her next move will be. She said she is hoping Congress will take an active role and ban the drugs. She said she has started writing a new letter to members of the legislative committee looking into the issue.
"The truth is, I can't drop this. I've seen everyone else who does," she said. "I know it eats at people, ... but I have got to live up to my obligation to my son, and that is to prevent someone else from having this happen to them."