Hermitage parents plan trip to Thailand for stem-cell procedure to help daughter

A nonprofit foundation seeks funds to finance the procedure and
travel expenses.



HERMITAGE, Pa. — A parent’s love knows no bounds and, apparently, no international boundaries.

Erika Hirschmann’s parents are taking her to Thailand for an experimental surgery.

In 1996 Erika Hirschmann contracted a virus and went into congestive heart failure.

Nine years later she started suffering chest pains, and doctors determined she had pulmonary hypertension — essentially high blood pressure of the lungs that stemmed from her weakened heart.

This past April she suffered a stroke and in May more problems with her heart.

Now doctors want the 29-year-old mentally handicapped Hermitage woman to have a heart/lung transplant, but her family worries that the wait for a heart/lung transplant may be too long as their daughter’s health problems continue to mount.

They plan to take her to Thailand in January for an experimental adult stem cell procedure that they hope will help strengthen her heart, and also help her lungs improve.

“It’s very tempting to at least try that first,” said her mother, Marcia Hirschmann, of the experimental procedure.

The family learned of the procedure, which is not yet approved for use in the United States, through the Internet. The family has yet to find any negative side effects of the adult stem cell procedure, which is being done in the United States through clinical trials. Erika, however, does not qualify for those trials because of her pulmonary hypertension, her mother said.

Famed Hawaiian singer Don Ho had the procedure done in 1995, and his family credited it with extending his life until his death in April of this year.

The experimental procedure, called VesCell, was developed by ThereaVitae Co., a company with offices in Thailand and Israel.

To have the procedure done, Marcia and Joseph Hirschmann must travel to Bangkok where their daughter will have a pint of blood drawn. That blood will be sent to laboratories in Israel where her own stem cells will be multiplied into several million over about a week’s time. Doctors in Bangkok will then inject those adult stem cells into her heart, a procedure expected to make her heart stronger.

The hope is it will also reverse some of the effects of her lung disease too, her mother said.

“It’s still somewhat experimental. There have been Americans who have had good results, but they are not sure how long the results will last,” Marcia Hirschmann said.

The Hirschmann family will be paying for the procedure and all of their travel and lodging costs on their own. The procedure alone is expected to cost $40,000.

Now, some of Marcia Hirschmann’s co-workers have taken to fundraising to help pay for the expenses. Hirschmann is the city director of planning and development in Hermitage, where she has worked for the last 30 years.

Hirschmann’s co-workers recently held a 5K race and pasta dinner to help raise money for the trip and procedure.

Denise Moore, one of the organizers, said nearly 900 people attended the dinner at the Avalon Country Club in Hermitage. They are now holding a raffle of Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers items to raise more money, she said.

“The residents and businesses have gotten behind this more than we thought,” said Moore, who did not want to say how much money was raised. “We’ve all known Erika since she was little. She’s challenged, but her health has been good. It’s sad we can’t do more.”

All of the donations go to the Erika Hirschmann Foundation, a nonprofit foundation set up through the Shenango Valley Foundation, and are tax-deductible, Moore added.

Marcia Hirschmann said her daughter, the oldest of four children, worked at the Mercer County Association for the Retarded workshop until the stroke earlier this year left her with long-lasting problems using her left hand and on intravenous medication 24 hours a day.

Now she is at home each day with caregivers and family who must help her dress and perform other tasks.

They try to take her out daily to keep her occupied and engaged, her mother said.

“She doesn’t fully grasp what she is going through medically. She knows something big is coming and she’s afraid,” her mother said.

Marcia Hirschmann said they are hoping Erika’s health remains stable enough to travel to Bangkok next year and the procedure works and her daughter will not have to undergo a heart/lung transplant.

“In my best-case scenario, we go to Thailand and the stem cells work,” she said.

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