Man to travel to China for cutting-edge surgery

Jennifer Mann

David Maynard knows it sounds crazy.

But crazy to him is the thought of living another year with the injury that has dogged him for nearly a decade.

Five surgeries, and still no relief from the numbness in his right leg that limits his mobility. And perhaps worse, no answers.

The Quincy, Mass., resident is preparing to go to China to undergo cutting-edge surgery not available in the United States because it is regarded as risky. Doctors there will inject stem cells from an umbilical cord into Maynard’s spine.

The treatment, he believes, is a step toward treating the chronic ailment that began in 1999 with a herniated disc in his upper back.

Maynard, 42, wants to start a family. He wants to live his life.

“At this point, nobody is really able to give me a clear idea of what is going on,” he said. “I figure, if nobody can really understand it, maybe I should look to a solution that nobody really understands.

“If I wait, I’m looking at 10 to 12 years more. At this point, I think I need to go forward with my life, and this is the best way to do that.”

Maynard, who works at Bay State Community Services, read about the treatment last year in Business Week – an “ah-hah” moment, he said.

The article reported that ailing Americans were “flocking to China,” noting one doctor who treated 170 foreigners in one year with stem-cell therapies. The treatment has become more common in China, where the words “stem-cell research” aren’t as loaded with religious and philosophical debate as in this country, according to the article.

But controversy hasn’t necessarily slowed use of these types of cells in the United States. The research simply isn’t there yet, said Dr. Walter Low, director of the Neurosurgery Research Laboratories at the Stem Cell Institute of the University of Minnesota.

Low said he is not aware of any preclinical studies that used umbilical cord stem cells to treat back pain. While there is an emergence of preclinical studies with other types of stem cells for back pain, even those show mixed results.

Low said he would advise those, like Maynard, who are contemplating the procedure to, “look into what preclinical work they’ve done. You can’t just blindly jump into giving people stem cells for therapy unless you’ve shown through models that there’s some sort of efficacy.”

Maynard’s wife, Tania Rhen, said friends' and relatives’ initial reactions were similarly skeptical.

“But once they’re educated and learn more about it, people are definitely supportive,” she said.

Online, some naysayers call such efforts “medical tourism.”

“I’m a little offended by that,” Maynard said. “I’m going over for the treatment, and I wouldn’t be going over there if they offered it here.”

Maynard joined a group of people on the Internet who are considering heading over to China for the surgery. He spoke on the phone with a paraplegic man from the West Coast who is progressing after a similar stem-cell transplant.

Maynard knows the therapy isn’t a panacea – he expects months of physical therapy after undergoing the surgery.

But he has more hope now than in he’s had nine years, time spent visiting doctor after doctor, getting frustrated by a lack of direction and support.

“I think some doctors have gotten to the point where they practice what I call conveyor belt medicine,” Maynard said. “They just keep pushing you through to the next test, the next surgery.”

Right now, Maynard walks with a cane and has trouble driving a car. His wife said, “He takes it day-by-day.”

His coming days should be more eventful. In August, Maynard is set to complete a master’s in business administration degree. The next month, if all goes to plan, he will be in China for treatment.

Upon returning, Maynard wants to start a foundation that supports umbilical-cord stem-cell research.

“From the beginning, I said, ‘If I was going to do this, I wasn’t just going to do it for me,” he said.

Patriot Ledger writer Jennifer Mann may be reached at