My Quest To Be Treated Like a Dog

Doctors seemed stymied by Julia Szabo’s chronic condition. So when her pit bull’s arthritis disappeared following stem-cell injections, she wondered if a similar treatment could help her

by Laura Sinberg • Features Editor
Medicine Dog

For nearly a decade, pet reporter Julia Szabo struggled to control her inflammatory bowel disease with conventional medicine. Then, in 2008, Szabo’s dog Sam collapsed from osteoarthritis. While feverishly researching how to improve his life, she stumbled across a company that uses stem-cell regeneration therapy to treat ailing animals. Within hours of receiving the stem-cell injections, Sam began acting pain-free—and Szabo had an epiphany. Why couldn’t what Publisher's Weekly described as a "cutting-edge medical procedure" heal her ailments? In her book, Medicine Dog: The Miraculous Cure That Healed My Best Friend and Saved My Life, Szabo chronicles her journey to be treated like man’s best friend.

MORE: What is stem cell regeneration?
Julia Szabo: It’s basically removing fat cells—as with liposuction, but not for looks—then harvesting stem cells from the fat and reinjecting those into your body. The stem cells are like a special-forces unit your body keeps in reserve. When they are removed from the fat in which they are lying dormant and injected back into you, they act as a search and repair team—finding areas that are inflamed or otherwise need healing. [Editor’s note: Stem cell regenerative medicine encompasses many procedures, not only those using fat stem cells.]

MORE: What prompted you to research the procedure?
J.S.: My eldest dog, Sam, had been wobbly on his legs for about two years. In 2008, when he was 14, he became unable to lift his hind leg to go to the bathroom. Prior to that, he’d been like Baryshnikov—he had this unbelievable leg extension. Now poor Sam was peeing with all four feet on the floor. It was totally emasculating. One day in April, he collapsed on the street. A lot of people at that point would say, “Well, he’s 14 years old. Time to say goodbye.” But I wouldn’t do that. The Internet led me to Vet-Stem, a company near San Diego that specializes in veterinary stem cell regeneration. Sam had the procedure. When he arrived home, about three hours after his anesthesia wore off, he pushed past me, walked over to a hydrant and lifted his leg to pee. I couldn’t believe it.

MORE: At the time, you were recently divorced and suffering from a chronic condition that left you feeling undesirable and unhealthy.
J.S.: Yes. In 1999, when I was 34, I almost died as a result of something called a perirectal fistula, an opening in my intestine that leaked fecal matter into my blood, causing me to become septic—and to develop an abscess on my butt. So I had to undergo a middle-of-the-night emergency surgery to drain the abscess. But because of the location of the wound, it wouldn’t heal; it just kept bursting open.

MORE: So there was nothing you could do?
J.S.: Until the fistula in my gut stopped leaking, the abscess couldn’t heal. The doctor said that the only real solution was a surgery called a fistulotomy that had a high risk of leaving me anally incontinent. Rather than risk it, I suffered years of chronic pain.  

MORE: You wrote that during this time, you began to lean on your vet for medical advice.
J.S.: Yes, because veterinary medicine was ahead of human medicine. I was out to lunch with one of the veterinarians from Vet-Stem, who told me that Sam’s procedure had been performed on humans outside of the U.S. She said: “Why don’t you look into stem cell regeneration for yourself?” I was desperate. So I went to ClinicalTrials.gov and searched “perirectal fistula stem cells.”

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