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Widow Testifies In Vioxx Trial

The widow of a man whose death is at the center of the country's first Vioxx-related civil trial told jurors Thursday that she struggles with guilt because she suggested her husband ask his doctor about the painkiller when they saw ads for it on television.

"I feel very guilty at times," a soft-spoken Carol Ernst testified about her husband, Robert Ernst, who took Vioxx for eight months to relieve pain in his hands before he died in his sleep next to her.

"I feel like if Bob had never met me, he might still be alive because I was the one who told him to ask about the Vioxx," she said.

Carol Ernst, 60, is the plaintiff in the case alleging that Vioxx caused her husband's 2001 death. Robert Ernst's autopsy report says he died from an arrhythmia — or an irregular heartbeat secondary to clogged arteries. Carol Ernst and her lawyer, Mark Lanier, allege a Vioxx-induced blood clot and heart attack caused those conditions.

Vioxx-maker Merck & Co. took the multibillion-dollar selling drug off the market last year when a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken 18 months or longer. But the company has relied heavily on the autopsy report in the Ernst case, saying no studies link Vioxx to arrhythmia so the drug couldn't have caused Robert Ernst's death.

The coroner who wrote the report testified last week that Ernst more than likely died of a heart attack, but his death was too sudden for his heart to show damage.

As his widow testified, at least two jurors appeared to wipe tears from their eyes when she described her life since her husband died just one month shy of their first wedding anniversary. The mother of four had been divorced for more than 15 years when one of her daughters played matchmaker with her and Ernst, 59, a produce manager at a Wal-Mart who also ran marathons and taught aerobics classes.

Carol Ernst said she dated Robert Ernst for about three years before they got married in 2000, and they often exercised together even clocking a 62-mile race on a tandem bicycle eight days before he died.

She said she couldn't sleep in their bed for at least six months after his death, and often slept on the living-room floor to escape his fragrance, which lingered on other furniture. She still seeks grief counseling, takes antidepressants and puts on a good face for her children and grandchildren, but "the bubble, the joy, the everything has just been sucked out of me."

She said she wrote a poem, "The Pit," about a place to put her pain.

"I'm afraid if I ever really looked into the pit and acknowledged how much I've lost, emotionally it would destroy whatever is left of me," she said.

Merck's lawyers expected to question Carol Ernst later Thursday, after which Lanier said he planned to rest his case in the third week of the trial. Merck's legal team can then present the company's defense.