Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Buying cells & buying hope?
Every year thousands of sick and disabled Americans make medical pilgrimages to China, Russia and Mexico looking for cures. Most are fragile and disabled.
Meeting one of them, Jim Dunn, left a lasting impression on me. Jim is an ex-Marine, a vibrant, fun guy who had skydived for more than 40 years. But when we met, Jim was in a wheelchair. He was violently attacked six years ago, his spinal cord severed. He's a quadriplegic. After years of lying in bed and hearing, 'You'll never walk again," Jim decided to take action. The wheelchair wasn't his destiny, he believed, and he was willing to pay whatever it took to walk.
He found neurosurgeon Dr. Huang Hongyun in China, who said he could help. Jim traveled from California to China for the experimental operation Dr. Huang offered, which would cost more than $40,000.
Dr. Huang injected fetal nose and brain cells (called olfactory ensheathing cells) into Jim's spinal cord, saying it would help regenerate his nerve fibers. Jim's heart stopped after the surgery. He almost died.
Six months later, Jim still is not walking. He's had a little improvement with movement and sensations in his hands and arms, but some doctors say that could be the result of intense rehabilitation.
I interviewed Dr. Huang after Jim's surgery and when I asked him whether Jim would ever walk again, his answer startled me: "I don't think our method right now can cure his spinal cord injury. I don't think Jim Dunn can walk again." I couldn't believe that Jim would have made the trip had he known that. Later, I asked Jim: "Did Dr. Huang tell you that you wouldn't walk again?" His face said it all. Jim looked stunned. "No," he said, "He never told me that." It still gnaws at me, thinking I may have taken some of Jim's hope away.
Jim never saw Dr. Huang after his surgery and there has been no follow-up. Was it all worth it? Would he do it again? Jim says yes even though he still doesn't know the outcome of his surgery decision. It was like "rolling the dice," he says, and he still hopes he will walk and skydive again.
I want to know what you think. Is it worth risking your life for an experimental surgery? Does experimental research deserve more funding?
ABOUT THE BLOGGet a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
PREVIOUS POSTS• The state of health care
• A former journalist battles heart disease
• My childhood memories of cancer
• Paying the price for preventive care
• Hunting for clues to Castro's health
• Stop a killer, but promote sex? That is the questi...
• Livestrong: A life changing moment
• "War on cancer" continues
• Lance's fire burns bright