Phil Martin

Phil Martin of Bozeman stands outside his office on Thursday, July 20. Martin departs for Mexico in January where he will receive experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis.

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For most Americans, Mexico conjures images of college spring breaks gone wild, beautiful beaches and cheap tacos, but for Bozeman resident Phil Martin it represents a chance to halt a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

Martin, 30, will travel to a hospital in Puebla, Mexico, in January 2018 to undergo a medical procedure called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. He will undergo four days of chemotherapy, reducing his immune system to a “neutropenia” state, or almost completely eliminate its ability to fight disease. Then doctors will use stem cells from Martin’s spine to re-establish his immune system without the disease defect.

He and his mother will stay in a hospital administered apartment for a month, then come home for a year-long recovery. Martin is optimistic. The procedure sees an 80 percent success rate of halting the disease. If the procedure works, Martin can get off meds. There is a potential for symptom relief, but it is somewhat uncommon.

Martin will join around 1.5 million other Americans who travel outside of the U.S. each year for medical treatment. The statistic is provided by Patients Beyond Borders, a medical travel research organization. Martin’s treatment is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but is common in countries such as Russia, Mexico, Italy, Sweden and Germany. The procedure has been around for about 20 years, but is still considered experiential in the U.S. — there are currently clinical trials around the country aimed at gaining FDA approval.

Regardless of the procedures relatively long history, the decision to go to Mexico to seek treatment wasn’t a no-brainer and only came after months of research, symptom progression and bad days.

Martin’s prognosis is relatively new. In November 2016, Martin’s left eye vision began to blur. Within three days he was unable to tell where light was coming from. He sought help from his optometrist, who realized the problem lay in his optical nerve — it was being attacked by his own immune system.

After an MRI, local doctors ruled its cause down to two diseases. A month of testing in December confirmed an MS diagnosis and Martin began drug treatment for fatigue, weakness in his arms, memory lapses and “brain fog,” which Martin describes as a decreased ability to think clearly and “be on the ball.” Luckily, due to the speed of Martin’s optometrist, doctors were able to correct the damage to his optic nerve and Martin regained 90 percent of his eyesight.

The father of three, husband and director of customer success at Printing for Less in Livingston has seen a drastic decrease in energy. Instead of his normal day-long ski days, he found himself only able to stomach one to two hour stints on the hill. The family took a Saturday trip to Yellowstone National Park last July and the day-long excursion coupled with a full work week left him resting all of Sunday. The breaking point came in March, though.

He had come home from work to his 3-year-old’s enthusiastic hello. When he went to pick up his daughter, he couldn’t. His arms were too weak. This catalyzed an extrapolation of what his physical and mental status would look like five, 10 or even 40 years out. It didn’t look promising.

“I just think of the future and how I want to keep up with them and play,” Martin said.

So Martin went to Chicago and visited Dr. Richard Burt at Northwestern University. Burt’s clinical trial of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is one of the furthest along in the country. But Martin’s condition wasn’t advanced enough — Burt wanted to see more damage and lesions in his brain.

He started researching online and joining location specific Facebook groups, where people who had undergone the procedure shared their stories. Martin did careful comparison — weighing the credentials of specific doctors and hospitals across the world. He looked at cost — his procedure will cost $54,000 — and success rates. Mexico fit the bill.

A nonprofit, Help Hope Live, started a fundraiser for the Martins and hopes to raise $60,000 to help cover the procedure and other medical bills. The price tag may seem high, but in contrast to the cost of drugs — a 2015 study by researchers at Oregon Health and Sciences University found people with MS spend about $60,000 a year on drugs — it is relatively small. Martin’s health insurance would help cover the cost of the drugs, but will not cover the cost of the procedure.

As his departure date approaches, Martin continues to keep a can-do mindset. He feels it’s important to stay engaged with work and family, even though some days are frustrating. When it comes to talking to his three children about his disease, he prefers to keep it kid-appropriate, but realistic.

“I think it’s important kids know hard things happen,” Martin said. “Hopefully 31 goes better than 30.”

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