13-year-old in Mexican clinic: 'This is where it should be'

Alternative therapy uses apricot pits, shark cartilage

By Michelle Shephard
Toronto Star Staff Reporter March 27, 1999

TIJUANA, Mexico - Tyrell Dueck watches television from his bed with his father as a slow intravenous drip of laetrile, an extract of apricot pits, flows into his body.

His daily intake of vitamins, enzymes and amino acids to fight his cancer now also includes doses of shark cartilage. He's a candidate for a blood-boiling $15,000 procedure called whole-body hyperthermia, electrical therapy or experimental gene manipulation.

Tyrell was told the doctors in Canada who said his cancer had spread to his lungs were wrong. Tests done in this controversial Tijuana clinic show his cancer hasn't progressed, his new doctors told him this week.

``He's feeling wonderful. Better than I've seen him in a long time,'' says his father Tim.

``They do here what we can't get at home. It's a beautiful place. He was getting morphine and all that stuff at home and it didn't do anything. But here, in a matter of a couple days, they have his pain completely under control.''

On a verandah in front of the clinic, Tyrell's mother Yvonne is helping her 9-year-old daughter Stephanie with a workbook on dogs. Angie, Tyrell's 15-year-old sister is milling around the small 32-bed hospital, talking with some of the other patients, many Canadians.

``This is where he should be. This is where we wanted him to be. It was our choice,'' says Tim.

`It's a beautiful place. He was getting morphine and all that stuff at home and it didn't do anything. But here, in a matter of a couple days, they have his pain completely under control.'

Tim Dueck

Tyrell's father

Tyrell's case has raised questions about who should decide where the 13-year-old can be treated for his cancer and the effectiveness of alternative therapies.

A Saskatchewan court had ruled Tyrell should complete his chemotherapy and have a partial leg amputation, against the 13-year-old's wishes. As the family was deciding whether or not to appeal the court decision, doctors discovered last week Tyrell's bone cancer had spread to his lungs and he was beyond the help of conventional medicine.

``I think it was a case where the survival rate was high enough that virtually any reasonable and loving parent would have said: `Let's go for it,' '' said Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

The court had heard Tyrell was a given a 65 per cent chance of survival rate if he had followed his chemotherapy prior to last week's discovery. The judge also said although Tyrell appeared mature and intellectually capable to make the decision, the information provided by his parents was not complete.

``The choice Tyrell was offered was not a choice between living and dying. It was living by munching on a few Mexican herbs and praying, which his father had told him would give him a great chance of a cure, or opting for a lower chance and having his leg cut off,'' Schafer said.

Christine Harrison, director of bioethics at the Hospital for Sick Children, said her hospital has started a task force on approaches to alternative therapies, since the demand for non-conventional therapies has increased dramatically over the last five years.

``There are aspects of Tyrell's situation that seem very familiar. Often health-care workers are feeling discomfort with decisions that parents are making for their child or what the child wants,'' said Harrison. ``We need some sort of decision making guidelines.

``I think this case is sad, but it is always sad when people hold beliefs in supernatural and reject what the best of our medical knowledge has to offer,'' said Bernard Dickens, a professor of medical law at the University of Toronto.

Dickens said in cases with children, the responsibility of the child's parents is to do what's in the best interest of their child.

Tim Dueck feels he's doing what's best for his son.

``Tyrell wants to be here and we know they don't do miracles, but they take care of him and it's God really who is looking after him,'' says the truck driver from Martensville, Sask.

As Dueck talks, clinic patients walk in and out of the dining room. Many hold above their heads a yellow bag of laetrile, an extract of apricot pits. Laetrile is banned from Canada after medical tests showed it wasn't effective in treating cancer.

Shark cartilage, although available in pharmacies in Canada, is also not recommended for treatment, says Dr. Hal Gunn, of the Centre for Integrated Therapy in Vancouver.

``There are hundreds of different treatments people claim (have) cured cancer. Our job is to try to distill all those treatments to find those that are the most valuable to many people,'' Gunn said yesterday about his non-profit research centre.

The only thing the staff here in Tijuana and Tyrell's doctors in Canada can definitively agree on is that he is a sick boy. Despite claims that he feels great, a pale, tired-looking 13-year-old lay in his bed all day yesterday.

The vice-president of the clinic says since the Dueck family arrived, there have been hundreds of calls from the media and public.

``We didn't ask for this, we didn't solicit this, we didn't know the Dueck family from a hole in the wall,'' says American Biologic's Michael Culbert, delighting in the media attention his clinic has recently received.

Culbert, who has no medical background, conducts tours of the clinic and gives descriptions of the treatments like a used car salesman eager for a sale. He adamantly states the fees they charge for treatments and the $6,000 weekly price for basic care and accommodation are modest for what patients receive.

``We're on a roll. A revolution is underway for choice of health freedom.''

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