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SELLING SCIENTIFIC PROMISE

A desperate injection of stem cells and hope

February 20, 2005|By Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

His son, Thomas, had taken the year off from college to help care for his father. Thomas struggled now to transfer him in and out of the lift installed in the stairwell. His father's body was turning to dead weight.

At this late stage, Valerie wished that Tom could help patch the holes of their life — apologies, advice for their children, regrets, kind words that could help her carry on without him.

She begged him to make peace with his life.

"Why are you so mean to me?" Tom typed on his synthesizer. "You want me to die soon."

"No, we want you to talk with us," Valerie said. "Isn't there something you want to tell us?"

Tom just shook his head.

She asked whether he wanted to be buried or cremated. He turned up the volume on the television to drown her out.

One night Tom plowed his wheelchair into furniture, knocking over lamps and chairs. Valerie called the police, telling them that he had tried to ram into her too.

After that, she refused to guard his secrets and told Dr. Glass about the stem cell treatment.

The neurologist understood. Tom was not his only patient who had sought unproven stem cell therapies abroad.

Valerie asked a lay minister from her church to talk with her each week.

All that fall, a pungent odor wafted through the house — a brew of Chinese herbs that Tom poured into his feeding tube.

In early November, Tom received an e-mail from BioMark stating that the board of directors wanted to offer him a second treatment. He would only be required to pay about $1,000.

"Please do not contact them and tell them it doesn't work," Tom typed in a message to Valerie. "I need anything now to help me and I will try anything."

Perhaps the first stem cell injection just needed a boost. He was ready to wire the money as soon as BioMark scheduled an appointment.

Then the news arrived. Tom showed Valerie the e-mail from the FDA. BioMark was under investigation for fraud.

"I guess you won't be going for that second treatment," Valerie told Tom.

He lowered his head.

He still believed in BioMark, but there was nothing he could do on his own. Valerie could barely listen to him anymore.

She dug up the number for the Canadian doctor who had injected Tom, and demanded a refund.

Dr. Goddard sent $1,920, which he told her was his fee from BioMark. He did not return several phone calls from The Times.

The money arrived with a note saying, "I love my patients." There was also a book, the 1969 classic by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, "On Death and Dying."

Valerie glanced at the book and deposited the money.

A RESOLUTION WITH NO PEACE

On March 23, 2004, Tom Hill died at Haven House Hospice in Atlanta. He was 56.

At a memorial service at Northside United Methodist Church, old friends spoke about their fraternity days at the University of Georgia. The minister remembered how happy Tom had been to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.

Valerie decided to have his body cremated. Half his ashes were scattered on Lake Burton. Valerie plans to disperse the rest in a memorial garden at their church. For now, they are on a shelf in his office, surrounded by pictures of the multimillion-dollar office complexes he had built around Atlanta.

Two months after Tom died, Valerie put a recording of his memorial service into a cassette player at home. The last two years had nearly destroyed her memories of their marriage. The old stories helped. She replayed the tape every few days.

"Eventually, I'll hopefully be able to remember the good times," she said.

She has begun training to become a Stephen Minister, a church counselor like the woman who had helped her through Tom's final months.

The FDA recently sent her a check for $6,896, part of the money the government seized from BioMark. The company remains under investigation.

One afternoon in December, Valerie returned home to find a message on her answering machine from BioMark.

It was for Tom.

Valerie didn't know it, but the company had set up an office in London and found doctors in Tijuana and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to start administering their injections again. It set up a Swiss bank account to receive payments from patients.

The caller said she would phone back but never did.

A NEW SEARCH FOR HOPE

The patients arrive every few weeks at the Corporativo Oncologico in Tijuana — Americans slumped in wheelchairs, hobbling on crutches or carried by loved ones toward the stem cells inside.

The clinic's main business is providing low-cost radiation treatments. But recently Dr. Armando Garcia, the head of the clinic, began administering stem cells for BioMark.

He stepped into the waiting room with an orange-and-white bag labeled "biohazard." He reached into the bag and pulled out a frosted vial.

"These cells are very good," he said.

Marsha Weeks arrived from Anacortes, Wash., in September, hoping to ease her bouts of pain from multiple sclerosis. Living on Social Security, the 29-year-old single mother maxed out her credit cards to pay for a single $10,000 treatment.

A few weeks later, 25-year-old Richard Welsh leaned into his crutches and ascended the ramp to the clinic. He prayed the cells could repair his spinal cord, crushed in a car accident five years earlier.

His hometown, Klemme, Iowa, had rallied behind him. A dentist donated electric toothbrushes for a fundraiser. The local Wal-Mart chipped in $750.

Greg Evans journeyed to Tijuana from Robesonia, Pa., hoping to save his only child. Eleven-year-old David was withering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal degenerative disease.

"We're staking our lives on this working," Evans said.

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