The clock is ticking for paraplegic ex-jockey Michael Martinez if he is to get embryonic stem cell treatment in time to help him regain some of his physical capabilities. He was paralyzed from the waist down in a terrible fall during a race at Golden Gate Fields Sept. 12.
Dr. David Seftel, Golden Gate's medical director and Martinez's personal physician, says the 24-year-old Panama native has qualified for a phase II clinical stem cell treatment study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, but immigration bureaucracy may prevent him from taking advantage of the opportunity. The clinical study is being conducted by StemCells Inc., whose U.S. headquarters is in Palo Alto, Calif.
"This offers Michael his very best hope of getting some of his abilities back," Seftel said May 14. "This (clinical study) is a very good fit for Michael's situation. They want people with exactly his sort of spinal cord injury."
The problem is that for Martinez to have the optimal chance of success, he must be at the Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich within 10 days to two weeks, Seftel explained. Martinez, who married Bay Area resident Charlotte Garcia in March, has applied for permanent U.S. residency and passed all required tests.
But a final interview by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Department, which Seftel said is a formality, is three months away. Without residency, Martinez, would likely be denied reentry into the United States. The couple, who live in San Pablo, Calif., have a 7-month-old daughter.
The clinical study, which would take three to four weeks, also offers the potential of getting the bulk of the stem cell injection treatment funded, Seftel noted. That's an important factor given the injured rider's financial situation. Seftel said there are no such studies going on in the U.S. at the present time.
"This is probably his very last hope for stem cell treatment," Seftel said of Martinez, who has been rejected for other programs because of timing and the severity of his injuries.
Through an attorney, immigration specialist Aurora Vega, Martinez has requested an expedited final interview on humanitarian grounds. However, the immigration service field director has not responded, Seftel said. Vega could not immediately be reached for comment.
Seftel has also written letters to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Martinez's congressman, George Miller, seeking their help in intervening with the immigration office.
Martinez had been a rider for five years and was second in last season's Golden Gate jockey standings when he was injured. The horse he was riding that day clipped heels and pitched him to the ground. Badly trampled in the fall, he underwent 11 hours of emergency surgery at an Oakland hospital and spent weeks hospitalized.
He continues to show improvement, strengthening his upper body, and "has been buoyed by the tremendous show of support he's received" from the Thoroughbred racing community, Seftel said.
"He's very entusiastic (about treatment), very much engaged in his rehabilitation and the prospects for his future," the doctor added.
Seftel said he's hopeful that publicity will spur the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to respond to Martinez's plight. He suggested that those who would like to write on Martinez's behalf address their letters directly to USCIS Director Robin Barrett at 630 Sansome St., San Francisco, Calif., 94111.