Injured Martinez Clears Immigration Hurdle

Paraplegic ex-jockey will be able to make trip to Zurich for stem cell treatment.

Paraplegic ex-jockey Michael Martinez is apparently going to be able to make a trip to the University of Zurich in Switzerland for vital embryonic stem cell treatment on his badly injured spinal cord.

Dr. David Seftel, medical director at Golden Gate Fields and Martinez' personal physician, said May 18 that a world-wide letter-writing campaign on behalf of the 24-year-old Panamanian-born Martinez succeeded in convincing the United States Customs and Immigration Service to expedite his application for permanent U.S. residency.

A final interview with the immigration department, mainly a formality to confirm that Martinez has met all the requirements and have him answer some questions, is to take place May 23 or 24.

If all goes as expected, Martinez would be on his way to Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich as soon as May 29. There Martinez will take part in a phase II clinical stem cell treatment program that holds the promise of giving him greater use of the lower half of his body. He is expected to undergo treatment for three to four weeks as part of the study, which is being conducted by StemCells Inc., whose U.S. headquarters is in Palo Alto, Calif.

Martinez was paralyzed from the waist down in a horrific fall at Golden Gate last Sept. 12. There have been several attempts to get him stem cell treatment but all previous tries had failed due to timing or the severity of his injuries.

Seftel believes that this particular study "offers Michael his very best hope of getting some of his abilities back."

There was concern that if Martinez was forced to wait three months, the usual time that elapses before USCIS conducts a final interview for permanent residency, any hope of getting Martinez help through stem cell therapy would be lost. But Seftel said he learned May 18 from the Zurich hospital "that Michael's candidacy is still good."

Martinez needs a permanent resident stamp on his passport in order to get back into the country. He lives in San Pablo, Calif., with his wife, Charlotte, and their 7-month-old daughter.

"We're enormously grateful to (USCIS Director) Robin Barrett and her staff for making this possible," Seftel said.

He also cited U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer's staff for intervening on Martinez' behalf as well as Martinez' attorney, immigration specialist Aurora Vega. He credited for the initial article May 14 that started the campaign to help the injured rider. He said the response was overwhelming.

"It galvanized a whole world of people with spinal cord injuries on behalf of Michael," Seftel said.