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PJM Lifestyle

by
Julia Szabo

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August 22, 2012 - 9:00 am

Why can’t doctors be more like vets? With medical breakthroughs quietly taking place in the field of animal medicine, it’s a question more Americans should be asking — whether or not they have pets.

Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, pets have access to more superior medical care than humans do. Dogs that suffer from arthritis may undergo stem cell regeneration therapy, in which their own autologous (adult) stem cells are harvested from their own fatty tissue and then injected into their joints. The healing benefit is remarkable, as I have witnessed myself with two of my own dogs. Unfortunately, this particular therapy is not yet available for humans in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Florida late last year, a Yorkshire terrier underwent a routine spay procedure, but something went very wrong during the anesthesia process and the dog emerged from resuscitation with cortical blindness. Veterinarians advised the dog’s owner that euthanasia might be the kindest option in this case. Then, a quick-thinking vet at Calusa Veterinary Center in Boca Raton suggested hyperbaric oxygen therapy; with nothing to lose, the dog’s heartbroken owner consented. Thirty-five HBO2 treatments later, the dog’s blindness was reversed.

Meanwhile, hyperbaric medicine is available to human patients with one of 15 Medicare-approved conditions — but alas, cortical blindness is not one of them. Dogs, on the other hand, may receive hyperbaric treatment for a much broader range of medical conditions — about 50 — so the chamber is being used to address problems ranging from Lyme disease to pancreatitis.

Veterinarian Diane Levitan, of Peace Love Pets Veterinary Care in New York, also offers her clients hyperbaric medicine for their animals. “Hundreds of thousands of people have been helped by HBO2, and it will help innumerable animals,” Levitan says. “Most of what we vets do is a result of what’s practiced by doctors on people; experiments are performed on dogs and mice and other animals, but this is one of the few situations where that’s reversed, and we’re applying a treatment modality to animals that humans tried first. It would be great if the human medical community would embrace HBO2 more. Hyperbaric medicine is not in the forefront of people’s minds, but it would be great if it could be in the forefront of physicians’ minds. That would create more cases, so that Medicare could see evidence-based medicine — and more people could be helped.”

It doesn’t help matters that the mainstream media reports on HBO2 with the same disparagement it normally reserves for stories on adult stem cells. The MSM sensationalized HBO2 by showing the late Michael Jackson asleep in his own private hyperbaric chamber, then trivialized the treatment by citing Keanu Reeves’ use of HBO2 for insomnia. If you get your news only from the MSM, you’d be convinced that HBO2 is just another one of those dangerous, experimental treatments that smack of quackery, just like adult stem cell therapy, and should be avoided like the proverbial plague.

Acknowledging, in a 2009 article in the New York Times, that “hyperbaric oxygen is only now beginning to reach its potential,” Jane E. Brody adds this caveat:

At the same time, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has joined the ranks of unproven remedies for many conditions, especially incurable ones like cerebral palsy and autism. The use of the therapy in these situations often borders on quackery that exploits desperate patients and parents. One family I know spent $40,000 in a futile attempt to reverse their child’s cerebral palsy; another spent more than that and even bought a home hyperbaric unit to treat their child’s autism.

Doctors who try to apply new therapies to difficult medical problems shouldn’t be damned by the media for doing so. What’s more, the media needs to check in more often — at least every three years! — with “unproven remedies” to see what’s new in the field and duly, diligently report that news. Until that happens, it’s up to patients, their families, and advocates to do our own homework via the internet. That’s how I learned about a medical issue that has vexed me since 1999, when I was taken to the emergency hospital in the middle of the night.

The procedure was incision and drainage of an abscess caused by a perirectal fistula. The incision was deliberately left to heal on its own, without stitches, but it never fully healed, and it causes me a great deal of discomfort. Mine is not a life-or-death condition; rather, it’s what I jokingly call a quality-of-life-or-death issue. My attending physicians couldn’t give me an explanation as to what had caused the problem; I had to research that on my own, and unlocking the multi-pronged answer took years. During that time, my reporting on pets and their health led me to seek stem cell therapy for my dogs — and ultimately, to investigate stem cell therapy for myself.


However, since stem cell therapy is not yet available in the United States for my condition, and is still in the trial phase in Europe (where I’m not eligible for inclusion in clinical trials because I’m American), I was curious to know what new technology might have to offer me here. In a consultation last year, the same doctor who performed my emergency surgery in ’99 told me, once again, that the only treatment option available to me was an old-school surgery called fistulotomy. He had no news for me, and hadn’t even heard of the stem cell trials going on in Europe since 2009. For the last 13 years, I’ve elected not to undergo a fistulotomy because there’s a good chance it could leave me permanently incontinent. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take, and I’m not changing my mind now.

A few months ago, I happened to research a story on hyperbaric oxygen therapy for pets, which is how I came to report on Sofie the Yorkie and her astonishing blindness reversal. I also learned of a fascinating link between stem cells — the body’s own built-in, search-and-repair healing system — and HBO2 therapy: Exposure to hyperbaric oxygen mobilizes stem cells so effectively that, over a course of 20 treatments, circulating CD34 cells were shown to increase eightfold. HBO2 is, according to Dr. Stephen R. Thom, chief of hyperbaric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Environmental Medicine, “the safest way clinically to increase stem cell circulation, far safer than any of the pharmaceutical options.” (Why doesn’t the Times‘ Jane E. Brody report on that, I wonder?)

Intrigued to know more about HBO2 for people, and whether it might offer me some relief, I studied the list of Medicare-approved conditions; among them was “selected problem wounds.” I called the hospital where I’d had the emergency surgery and the followup consult last year to ask if my condition might qualify. It turns out that it does, and that the hospital uses HBO2 to treat perirectal fistulas! So, why hadn’t my doctor suggested HBO2 as an alternative to surgery? Who knows? Perhaps he’d read too many dismissive reports about it in the MSM. Had I not been motivated to do some fact-finding on my own, I might never have found out about the healing connection between my condition and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Is is any wonder that, according to The Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. health system is the most expensive in the world, but comparative analyses consistently show the United States underperforms relative to many other countries? Among the seven nations studied — Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States — the U.S. ranks last overall (the Netherlands ranks first, followed closely by the UK and Australia).

Veterinarians, on the other hand, faced with clients who are outspoken and demanding on behalf of their furry loved ones in a way that most patients aren’t even for themselves, are more motivated to try out and recommend new technologies such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy. After all, there’s no danger their four-footed patients will sue.

As we’ve seen before, veterinary medicine is ahead of human medicine in many ways. The idea that pets are “just animals” — a philosophy that, sadly, too often costs them their lives at animal shelters – ironically works in their favor medically speaking, for pets lucky enough to have owners who can afford high-tech treatment have access to far better, and higher-tech, medical care than we humans do.

Old-school medical innovation is alive and well in Florida, where one enterprising businessman is putting his money on hyperbaric medicine. Edgar Otto founded Hyperbaric Veterinary Medicine, which manufactured the machine that helped Sofie the once-blind dog recover her sight. “I decided to move from hyperbaric oxygen therapy for humans to veterinary HBO2 because I am free to embarrass the human medical profession with the fact that we can make blind dogs see again,” Otto says. “And we can do it for humans, if we can be allowed to. But of course the FDA is extremely reactionary.”

Otto cites the example of a product he invented that, he claims, “would have changed human health care.” Inspired by a stay at a hospital and an unpleasant experience with a urine bottle, Otto designed a product he calls Urassist for more efficient and humane liquid waste collection. “It’s a bed-mounted urinary receptacle with a motor-powered pump,” Otto explains. “Medicare said they weren’t going to pay for it because it’s a convenience item. I said to Medicare, I’m confused — you pay for a commode to sit by the bed, which the patient has to get out of bed to use, and which often tips over after the patient is done using it. But not this?”

Otto used to own a chain of nursing homes, so he speaks from first-hand experience when he says, “The main reason people are admitted [to nursing homes] is because their caregivers at home can no longer deal with their incontinence and having to go right now.” The possibility that Urassist might empower people to help themselves rather than ask grossed-out family members for help didn’t move Medicare. “Medicare doesn’t care,” Otto says.

Last year, 82 new medical treatment devices were presented to Medicare; only two were approved for payment. “You mean to tell me the other 98 percent of those inventions were strictly garbage?” Otto says. “That boggles the imagination. Americans are being held hostage to rationed health care, and anybody that thinks we’re not doesn’t get it.”

Human health care practitioners have much to learn from animals and the vets who care for them when they’re ill. Traditionally, animals have been used to test and prove scientific discoveries that radically altered the course of human health care. Mostly, those tests resulted in the animals’ suffering and death. But what if that testing weren’t old-school testing, but a new breed of cross-species trialing? One that’s humane to the animals involved, improves their lives, AND swiftly provides scientists with more and better information that benefits us humans? What if doctors could keep pace with advances in the veterinary field, with an eye to improving their human patients’ lives?

High-tech healing is happening now in veterinary hospitals across this country. If only the MSM would report on these advances with less bias, and the human medical community would sit up and take note, patients on two legs could benefit as much as those on four. And America could once again be a world leader in medical innovation and care.

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More on Pets and Animals at PJ Lifestyle:

What Happens to Unwanted Dogs When They’re Not Adopted

Furry Friday: Bipigasanship in the Caucus

Furry Friday: Pets Aren’t Kid Substitutes

Journalist and author Julia Szabo wrote the Pets column for the Sunday New York Post, for 11 years and now pens the "Living With Dogs" column for Dogster.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetReporter1. Photo credit: Daniel Reichert
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