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Fight for Life

By GRETEL WIKLE

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's not unusual for the people in charge of casting television entertainment to add minorities to a script so that ethnic and religious groups and the handicapped are represented.

That wasn't necessary with the screenplay for Monday night's ABC movie, 'Fight for Life,' (9-11 p.m. EST). It features a Jew, a Catholic priest, a handicapped black neurologist and an epileptic girl.

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'If you were to design a cast, you couldn't get closer to what they want in Hollywood than what we had,' says Dr. Bernard Abrams, a Columbus optometrist whose story is told in the TV movie.

That obvious appeal aside, 'Fight for Life,' a retrospective on the year 1977 in the life of Abrams, his wife, Shirley, and their epileptic daughter, Felice, is an enriching story about victory for the little guy with merit of its own.

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It chronicles the struggle that Abrams, a Jew, his friend the Rev. Robert Hunt (Gerard Parkes), a Catholic priest, and Dr. Earl Sherard (Morgan Freeman), a handicapped black neurologist, undertook to get an anti-convulsant drug approved for use by epileptics in the United States.

Jerry Lewis, in his first dramatic television movie role, plays Abrams, whose determination to get the drug sodium valproate for his daughter led him to bitter run-ins with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a pharmaceutical company and finally to England on a smuggling expedition.

Even Lewis, who said he took the role because the honesty of the story 'touched his heart,' had to phone Abrams for reassurance that the cast factually represented the characters, and not Hollywood's desire to include minorities in its productions.

Patty Duke plays Abrams' wife and Jaclyn-Rose Lester plays Felice, the 5-year-old girl who was struck with myoclonic epilepsy, a rare form of the disease that can be debilitating. Except for a rather thick Jewish mother accent that comes and goes, Duke does an adequate job as the mother. The selection of Lewis, who has made a second career out of helping children with his telethons, was appropriate and he carries it off well.

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In seeking treatment for Felice, Abrams learned that the most promising drug for the girl was illegal in the U.S., though it had been tested and widely used elsewhere.

When Felice began having seizures, Abbott Laboratories (St. Clair Laboratories in the film) had begun testing sodium valproate in the U.S., but had not formally requested approval from the FDA because there was not substantial demand.

The FDA's stringent procedures for approving drugs had ensnared sodium valproate, and despite pleas by Abrams to get his daughter into one of the few testing programs, treatment for her was months away, and the seizures she suffered caused her injury and increased her chances of losing brain capacity.

The drug company blamed the government for the lag in getting the drug to market, and the government pointed back at the drug company. Seeing the mire created by U.S. bureaucracy, Abrams gathered his friends and sought treatment for Felice in England.

As Abrams searches for meaning in his daughter's illness and their decision to go to England for treatment, Hunt tells him, 'In the middle of a crisis it's not always clear to us what we are supposed to do. We have to look for God's plan.'

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The story is sublimated with Abrams' belief that God chose his family to deal with Felice's epilepsy in a way that would result in relief for all epileptics in the U.S.

Persistence paid off, and Felice and thousands of other epileptics have been helped in the years since the controversy.

To his family's credit, the FDA approved the drug in February 1978, more than a year after Felice's first seizure. Abrams has written a book with Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden, and has accepted awards and given speeches across the country about the experience.

But he says he tries to focus a large portion of praise for his effort on the media, which covered his trip to England and all that led up it.

'They were the prism, so to speak, which focused the lives of these children on the need for this drug and then Congress entered into the fray,' he said. 'The media are the final court of appeals in this society when the government turns you down, your doctor turns you down and your congressman isn't interested.'

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