SEATTLE -- James "Jay" Ellison, who fought with his insurance company even as he had to fight the aggressive form of multiple sclerosis ravaging his body, has made a dramatic recovery.
Ellison, who was confined to a wheelchair when he underwent an experimental stem-cell transplant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was told by doctors that the best he could hope for was to halt the disease.
"I got better than the best," Ellison said Saturday. "I'm walking."
Even Richard Nash, Ellison's doctor at the center, acknowledged he was excited by his patient's progress.
Nash said it's still too early to tell whether the disease will remain in check -- "There has never been anything that could cause permanent remission in multiple sclerosis."
But Ellison's recovery has been dramatic, he said: "The neurologists are quite surprised."
Ellison had been diagnosed with a fast-moving form of MS that within months robbed him of the ability to walk and subjected him to violent tremors throughout his body. MS is believed to be caused by an immune disorder in which nerve cells are attacked, causing them to misfire and eventually die.
Stem-cell therapy, a refinement of the bone-marrow transplant, involves destruction of the patient's bone marrow and immune system through radiation and chemotherapy, followed by an injection of replacement blood cells.
In March, Ellison became one of the first people in the United States to be treated for MS with a stem-cell transplant.
Premera Blue Cross had denied coverage of the procedure, though physicians at Fred Hutchinson and the University of Washington said the transplant offered Ellison's only chance for survival.
The Covington painting contractor received money from anonymous donors for procedure. The Hutchinson center agreed to absorb any portion of the $100,000 cost not covered by donations.
"I'm grateful for that, of course" Ellison said. "But I still have a problem with the fact that it let Premera Blue Cross off the hook. ... Heck, they haven't even paid for my wheelchair yet or any of my routine visits to the neurologist."
Ellison said Premera Blue Cross denies all of his claims now, saying everything is related to his experimental treatment. He noted that if he had not undergone the transplant, the company would likely be paying for expensive drugs and hospitalization.
"We're reviewing Mr. Ellison's history and we'll correct any problems identified," Premera spokeswoman Clara Webb Kinner said.
Kinner said she could not respond to Ellison's specific complaints because of patient confidentiality restrictions.
Nash said two of the five Fred Hutchinson patients who have received the experimental stem cell transplant for auto-immune disorders such as MS were covered by their insurance. But most insurers still refuse coverage, he said.
Ellison and his wife, Kathy, have gone camping and attended car races since the transplant. Ellison walks several hundred yards a day using a cane.
"We can do a lot of things we couldn't do before," he said. "My life
isn't just about the disease anymore."