Two Kane men testify in Florida on behalf of embattled stem cell doctor
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org October 20, 2012 6:50PM
Having checked out to Dr. Greckos' approval the two shake hands before Orr leaves to head back to Aurora that night. "We've done our part, now it's up to Bill to do his," Dr. Greckos said of the procedures success. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 22, 2012 6:04AM
It’s been interesting watching the news come out of Collier County Courthouse in Naples, Fla., last week.
If you believe the headlines online about this hearing that will determine if Dr. Zannos Grekos can keep his license to practice medicine, you’d think the cardiologist is a money hungry stem-cell quack taking advantage of the desperately ill.
But the stories I’m getting from two Kane County men who flew down to testify on behalf of the embattled doctor are totally different.
“There’s been a lot of testimony in favor of the doctor but it’s just not being reported,” said Bill Orr, an Aurora quadriplegic who insists the stem cell procedures he received under Grekos have enabled him to walk again.
We’ve chronicled closely — in past stories and again in this week’s Storyteller — the journey of Orr, who’s made remarkable progress since he underwent two treatments that injected his own stem cells from bone marrow back into his blood to more directly impact dead spinal cells.
What we didn’t know about until this past week is the story of Dr. Eric Bettag, a popular local podiatrist who broke his neck and severely injured his spinal cord in 2007 when a teenager ran a red light near his St. Charles office at the intersection of Randall Road and Dean Street.
The father of five, who eventually returned to his practice half days, said it was one of his own patients who first told him about this new and controversial stem cell treatment after reading Orr’s story in this newspaper. As a medical doctor, the Maple Park resident admits he was a skeptic. It took a lot of convincing from his father Jerome, an anesthesiologist who until retirement owned Valley Ambulatory Surgery Center in St. Charles, to give Grekos a call.
“I didn’t believe in it,” said Bettag, who also has an office at Lake in the Hills. “I really just did it to shut Dad up.”
By that time, Grekos had been banned from practicing stem cell treatments because one of his patients — a 69-year-old woman who was a friend of his mother’s — had died after the doctor injected her bone marrow into her circulatory system and brain.
So Bettag flew to the Dominican Republic in August 2011 where, like Orr, bone marrow stem cells were injected into his arteries. The results of that one treatment were so encouraging that the St. Charles doctor gladly shelled out the $30,000 for another round in May.
Following his car accident, Bettag said he made good progress at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute. But after 18 months, he became stagnant. Grekos’ treatments, he said, resulted in tremendous strides he never thought possible. Instead of walking a mile, he can now go two — and faster. Instead of bench pressing 115 pounds with considerable pain, he can now do 180 pounds — with no pain.
And he knows others who have been granted new hope, including the cystic fibrosis patient in the bed next to him in the Dominican who was at “death’s door” until the injections.
Both local men, who say they signed waivers and were told of the risks, believe their time on the witness stand went well on Thursday. News reports described many patients packing the courtroom in support of Grekos, including a Washington, D.C., attorney who testified the stem cell surgery stopped the progress of his MS.
Yet I could only find a few sentences here and there about those positive testimonies. So far, the big headlines paint a picture of a doctor who was negligent and worse. Prosecutors say Domenica Fitzgerald suffered brain damage the day after Grekos performed the unapproved procedure and died shortly after being taken off life support. The deputy chief medical examiner in Collier County testified the bone marrow infusion caused oxygen to be cut off to the left side of the brain.
After testimony concludes, the judge has 30 days to decide whether Grekos can keep his license. In February, the cardiologist will be back in court again: A second patient died after he was ordered not to practice his controversial treatments, although Grekos maintains that procedure did not use stem cells.
Bettag and Orr are convinced the Florida cardiologist is on the hot seat because of political and financial reasons. It all boils down to the control, they say, that big pharmaceutical companies have over government regulations.
“It would be a shame for them to stop something like this,” said Bettag “It is a godsend.”