Miracle or Mirage: Stem Cells Part 1

Miracle or Mirage

Desperate patients from America are flying to China for stem cells, their last hope for living normal lives — or staying alive at all. But can stem cells really cure the incurable? This is the story of Hal Burrows, a partially paralyzed man from Charleston, and his search for a miracle.


Chapter 1: The Patient
SHENZHEN, CHINA — The stem cells are late.
They were supposed to be here a half hour ago, fresh from the lab, 10 million for Hal's spine, and Hal's waiting.

Hal Burrows has been waiting for 20 years, really, ever since that afternoon on his racing bicycle when everything changed, since the doctors said he would never walk again, since those gray days two years ago when he was getting weaker and had all but given up hope. Where are the stem cells?

Hal passes the time by telling jokes to anyone in earshot, poking fun at the nurses, who don't understand English and look at him with tired faces. Hal talks about cameras, about movies he's seen; he laughs so hard he can't finish his stories. He can't wait to get this injection! Maybe this one will be another breakthrough.

In his wildest dreams, Hal never thought he'd end up in a Chinese hospital, halfway around the world from his home in Charleston, waiting for a doctor to inject stem cells into his spine.

But this is Hal's second trip to China in six months, and today, he's having his 11th injection and, wait ... the stem cells are here! Down the hall, a small portable cooler is being toted by a man in a white polo shirt who smiles as he saunters to the nurses' station.

The nurses shoo away Hal's visitors, put him on a gurney and wheel him down the hall. He passes other patients' rooms; their doors have signs with their names and flags from their home countries: United States, Canada, Romania, Brazil, United Kingdom.

Like Hal, these patients are paying as much as $20,000 for four stem cell injections, intravenous stem cell drips and a month's stay in a Chinese hospital.

Like Hal, they have diseases or injuries that are all but incurable: multiple sclerosis, spinal cord damage, Parkinson'sdisease , cerebral palsy, diabetes and Lou Gehrig's disease.

They're all in China searching for miracles because they've heard that stem cells might heal their conditions — and because they can't get stem cells where they live. They know that government regulators in their countries will require years of tests and clinical trials before they OK procedures like this. Some patients have heard their doctors say, yes, stem cells may someday revolutionize the way we treat injuries and disease, but it's best to wait until we know they really work.

Hal and the other patients don't have time to wait. Hal's muscles are getting weaker by the day ...

The doctor appears, a blue mask covering his face. For the moment, Hal's wait is over.
A nurse wheels him into a corner room overlooking the booming city of Shenzhen. In the distance, kites dance between skyscrapers in a smoggy gray sky. In the treatment room, Hal curls into the fetal position. A nurse smears an area on his lower spine with brownish iodine solution, and the doctor prepares the syringe.

Chapter 2: The Accident


Hal speeds down the hill on his racing bicycle.

Go faster.

It's dusk, Sept. 4, 1986, and Hal's feeling his oats. He's 26 years old, riding 30 mph down a curvy hill on the University of Richmond campus. He spent the day in a darkroom developing photographs and is antsy to get a workout in before it gets dark.

He's training to be a competitive fencer, just back from nationals in New York City where he placed high in the saber. His coach says he still needs to improve his leg speed. Leg speed? What's better than riding a bike? Hal's convinced he'll make the Olympic team.

Go faster.

Hal has always been fascinated with military things; it's his Southern heritage, he jokes later. How can you not be interested in the military if you grew up in Charleston, the city where the Civil War began?

Or if you attended The Citadel, like he did?

In Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy, he and his girlfriend
have a photography business called Voila Inc. And on this evening 21 years ago, he's finishing his workout, a five-mile loop on his bike, hoping to shave a few seconds from his record the night before.

He nears an intersection and senses something wrong. He hears a horn, turns to evade the sound and crashes into a car. He's knocked out cold, and when he wakes a few minutes later, a doctor who happens upon the scene asks him to move his legs.

"I am moving my legs, I am!"

He's not.

The accident compresses his vertebrae, blows out his spinal disks and bruises and cuts his spinal cord. At the hospital, doctors tell him he is paralyzed from the neck down, that he'll never walk again.

After two months, Hal regains some movement and feeling. His cord wasn't completely severed. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's badly bruised and pinched.

One day, attendants take him to the weight room and put him on a bench press. He looks up at the bar and remembers how he used to bench press his weight: about 175 pounds. He stares at the two 2 1/2-pound weights on the bar, then struggles to lift his hands and get a grip. He can't budge it. He starts to cry and doesn't stop. For three days, he wails so hard and loud that nurses move him to another ward so he won't upset the other patients.

Then something clicks, some neuro-chemical reaction that turns grief into determination. Hal looks almost euphoric now, the doctors comment. He begins working harder with the physical therapists. In three months, his right hand is strong enough to squeeze open a clothespin, though his left hand remains limp.

One night, after all the visitors and most of the staff leave, he decides to sneak out of his room and get a soda from a vending machine down the hall. He scrambles to the floor and crawls the whole way, mission accomplished. He does this night after night, and when doctors and nurses ask why his elbows and knees are so bruised and bloody, he plays dumb. A nurse eventually catches him in the act.

Doctors scold him, and then give him knee and elbow pads. Within a year, Hal regains enough strength to get out of his wheelchair and walk again, though his gait is awkward and he tires quickly.

Chapter 3: The Downfall

A few years later, he moves back to Charleston, where he meets a cheerful, red-haired woman named Debbie. Hal's doctor tells her that people with spinal cord injuries sometimes get better for a while and then get worse, but Debbie is an optimistic sort. She thinks, Hal will be fine, and look at him: He has a spinal cord injury but rides his bike from downtown Charleston to Folly Beach! They're married July 4, 1998, and later move to a one-story brick home in the Pierpont area of West Ashley.

On one of those rides to Folly, Hal suddenly feels his hands and legs go numb. He hasn't been feeling well lately. On his rides, he's using easier gears than in the past. But this is different. He stops on the James Island Connector, barely able to move. After five minutes, the feelings in his arms and legs return. But something's wrong.

The doctor has bad news: Hal's honeymoon is over. Twelve years after his injury, and after he recovered much of the feeling in his arms and legs, the cells in his spinal cord are atrophying, just as doctors had predicted. They can give him morphine and other medications to manage his pain. He can do physical therapy. But really, they tell him, there's not much else they can do.

Hal uses his walking cane more and more, then goes back to his wheelchair. He struggles to put on his clothes. He feels weak all of the time and stays up nights wondering if he will wake up the next morning without any movement at all. One night, he tells Debbie, "I feel as if my body is dying."

Chapter 4: New Hope
Spring 2006. Debbie is sad and frustrated. The man she married has become a shut-in. "I want you to join the living," she tells him. He doesn't answer.

Hal's pain grows.

Debbie doesn't know what to do, so she sits in front of her computer and types " stem cells" into her AOL search engine. A year before, a doctor had mentioned they might help.
On the Internet, Debbie learns how stem cells don't simply divide and multiply like other cells. They can change into different kinds - brain cells, heart cells. She learns that if scientists can somehow manipulate these cells so they replace injured ones, they might be able to cure all kinds of incurable diseases.

These magic cells might even rebuild an injured spinal cord.

She learns about Dr. Huang Hongyun in Beijing. He's begun treating foreign patients using stem cells from the nasal cells of aborted fetuses. She fires off an e-mail asking for more information. He e-mails her back saying he has a one-year waiting list.

"We can't wait that long," Hal says.

She learns about another company through the Web site www.stemcellschina.com. The company has an odd name, Beike Biotechnologies Co. Ltd., and Debbie shoots Beike an e-mail.

A representative e-mails back that they have room for Hal. Debbie and Hal also learn that Beike uses stem cells from the blood of umbilical cords that otherwise would be thrown away, not ones from embryos.

Debbie helps Hal apply for a visa. Hal buys a ticket to China for about $1,400. They wire $13,000 for the first four injections to Beike's account. This will be expensive, but Hal has some money saved up from a home he sold on Folly Beach.

Suddenly, Hal feels as though he's on a mission.

"I didn't have any hope before," he later recalls. Maybe with these stem cells, he thinks, I might be able to ride my bike again, or walk, or who knows what's possible?

It's now late July, and he boards a plane in Charleston and sets off for a hospital on the other side of the world.

TOMORROW: Hal arrives in China.


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