PLYMOUTH — At 16, Samantha Reckis has the long auburn hair she had as a child, the same laugh, the same spirit. But she is not the same person, nor are her parents, since she suffered devastating injuries after taking Children’s Motrin for a fever at age 7.
A Plymouth County jury awarded Samantha and her parents a record $63 million in damages this week against drug maker Johnson & Johnson for failing to adequately warn patients about the painkiller’s potential side effects.
In an interview with the Globe Friday, Samantha’s parents, Lisa and Richard Reckis, spoke about their daughter, the verdict, and the challenges she still faces. Her parents, who are divorced, did not want Samantha to speak to the press. They have always fiercely guarded her privacy.
She doesn’t talk about her ordeal, her parents say. “She acts as if it never happened,” Lisa says. “She doesn’t want anyone to pity her.”
Now a high school freshman in Plymouth, Samantha has remained on the honor roll despite six brain surgeries and dozens of other operations.
“She has to work twice as hard as other students to keep up her grades,” says her mother. “She just wants a normal life.”
Samantha’s life is as normal as it can be, her parents say. They describe her as “a happy kid,” strong willed and driven. She’s on the quiet side, but remains upbeat, loves to laugh and to make others laugh. She has sleepovers with friends and goes to school events, including dances.
Her plans include going to college to study nursing, her mother says, because she saw what her doctors and nurses could do. “She wants to help other people, especially children,” her mother said.
After taking three doses of Children’s Motrin in 24 hours at Thanksgiving 2003, Samantha suffered a severe reaction that resulted in the loss of most of her skin, permanent lung and liver damage, and blindness. Doctors finally diagnosed toxic epidermal necrolysis, an extremely rare and painful skin disorder caused by a reaction to some medications.
Over the years, she has undergone nearly 40 surgeries. She first underwent brain surgery after having an aneurysm and a stroke shortly after her reaction to the drug. Her medical records total more than 6,000 pages.
According to court papers, Samantha “continues to require extreme, daily, nutritional and respiratory therapies. . . . [She] has no eyelashes. . . . Her skin is scarred and her eyes are constantly red and tearing.”
But what bothers Samantha Reckis most these days is something any 16-year-old can relate to: She will never be able to get a driver’s license. Though her vision has improved some — she has had two eye surgeries in recent weeks and faces another next week — she will never see well enough to drive.
When her father recently broke that news to her, Samantha replied, “Well, I guess you’ll be driving me everywhere.”
Her parents say that nearly a decade of health emergencies hasn’t affected their daughter’s sense of humor. The first thing she said to her father, after she learned of the verdict was, “I’m filthy rich!”
In fact, the award must still be upheld by the trial judge. If it is, attorneys for the Reckis family say it may total $109 million when the court adds in interest.
What the multimillion dollar award means, her parents say, is that neither they nor their daughter will have to worry about her future: college, health, and living expenses. Lisa, 52, is a personal care attendant. Richard, 58, works at a gas station. Samantha is their only child. (Lisa has two children from a previous marriage; Richard has one.)
He was an executive chef at an upscale restaurant, but had to find a job with hours more suitable to his schedule of driving to Boston with Samantha for her myriad medical appointments. At 16, she weighs just 82 pounds. Though she has a good appetite, she burns calories fast. Her lungs function at only 20 percent capacity, and she can’t walk more than 150 yards without exhaustion.
But Samantha’s health issues haven’t diminished a major passion of hers: reading Harry Potter books. She reads on a special television that magnifies the type onto a screen positioned a couple of inches from her face.
“It takes her forever,” says Lisa. “But she absolutely loves Harry Potter. Most of her childhood has been about medicines and operations. This is fun and magic.”
After the verdict, her mother asked where she wanted to go if she could go anywhere in the world. “To Universal Studios in Florida,” Samantha replied, “to see Harry Potter World.” Lisa laughed. “I just took her there, thanks to family and friends, and she wants to go back.”
When Samantha testifiedat Plymouth Superior Court, she was asked by one of her attorneys what she liked to read. “Harry Potter,” she said. Who’s your favorite character, she was asked. “Ron Weasley.”
When the defense attorney questioned her, he said he had four daughters who also love the books. “I only have one question for you, Samantha. Why don’t you like Hermione best?”
Samantha, polite but incredulous, replied: “Because I’m a girl.”
Samantha, says her mother, is “an old soul” who has taught her much about life. “She humbles me every day. She has more strength and courage than anyone I know, and she makes me want to be a better person every day.”
But mostly, Samantha just wants to be your typical teenager, hanging out with friends, keeping her grades up so she can get into good colleges.
But summers can be hard. She has always loved the beach, and the sun is tough on her eyes, lungs, and skin.
Her parents say they are relieved and gratified over the verdict, which came after five weeks of testimony, including their own. Samantha was on the witness stand for about 20 minutes.
“As far as Sam goes, 12 people stood up and spoke for her,” says Richard. “It made me think the last 10 years were not in vain.”
But he remains angry at Johnson & Johnson, which issued a statement saying that although it sympathizes with the Reckis family, it disagrees with the verdict and is considering its legal options.
“I tell you what really bothers me,” says Richard. “Not one time did anyone pick up the phone or come down here and say, ‘We’re sorry’ to my daughter. I’d like them to sit here, and look her in the eye, and say they’re sorry.”
Richard, who was the one who first gave Samantha the Children’s Motrin for a fever, says he feels the responsibility every single day.
“Do I feel it was my fault? No,” he says. “But do I blame myself every day? Sure I do.”
Attorney Bradley Henry of the Boston law firm Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, which represented the family, said the jury of eight women and four men were evidently “shocked and astonished to learn that a product as common as Children’s Motrin can cause such devastating damage . . . and that the drug companies have known about it for decades.”
Years ago, when her daughter lay near death, Lisa Reckis said she prayed to God: “I said, ‘I’ll take her in any condition as long as you give her back to me.’ And he did. I got a second chance and I feel blessed every day.”
She feels more at peace since the verdict, she says, because she believes Samantha will have a secure future if anything happens to her or Richard.
“I wish I could turn back the clock, but I can’t. But what I can do, thanks to 12 jurors and a great legal team, is move forward, because now I have a future, with Samantha.”