A 16-year-old Russian boy found a hospital halfway around the world willing to remove his brain tumor for free.
His father says there was one condition — that his treatment could be filmed for a feel-good story by a local television station about the charitable operation.
But the positive story St. Anthony Hospital and neurosurgeon Paul Francel hoped to tell became tragic when the surgery left David Kurbanov brain dead.
Now his anguished father is lashing out at the hospital and hoping for a miracle recovery. Sabit Kurbanov said he had been led to believe that his son would fully recover, and he accused St. Anthony Hospital of performing experimental surgery.
Kurbanov, speaking through a translator, said the doctor and hospital were more interested in promoting themselves than properly caring for his son.
The news story amounted to a “TV commercial” that “talked about the hospital and the doctor and that even people from Russia came to them to find miracles,” Kurbanov said bitterly.
“There is no support at St. Anthony; there must be some other hidden agenda the doctors pursue,” said the father, who refuses to end life support for his son.
“It’s one of those foreign man in a foreign land situations,” said attorney Kelly Bishop, who is representing Kurbanov to make sure David is cared for at the hospital and that his father can see him regularly. He said there are no plans for a lawsuit.
The hospital said the filming was not a requirement for the operation. It said it never planned a commercial based on David, and that the father and son voluntarily signed consent forms for the filming.
“This was not some marketing ploy,” said Francel, who insists he performed the risky surgery out of goodwill.
Tumor around brain stem
David’s journey to Oklahoma City began early last year, when doctors in Moscow discovered a tumor that had wrapped around his brain stem, crowding the portion that controls involuntary body functions such as balance, swallowing and appetite.
Surgeons in Moscow had scheduled an operation for March 2006, but warned the Kurbanovs there was a 30 percent chance David could have complications, such as partial paralysis. The family put off the operation and sought out alternative medicines.
“David didn’t like the idea he would be handicapped in any way,” Kurbanov said.
Then, Kurbanov said, an American missionary living in Russia familiar with David’s story sent copies of his MRIs to Francel, and the doctor eventually agreed to do the $100,000 operation for free.
While Russian doctors warned of potential complications, the missionary billed Francel as a “super doctor who had performed more than 6,000 surgeries” and treated Middle Eastern elites and the powerful, he said.
But removing David’s type of tumor comes with a high probability of complications, said David Schiff, co-director of the Neuro-Oncology Center at the University of Virginia. It’s not uncommon for patients with brain stem tumors to require feeding tubes or experience double vision while in recovery, he said.
“The brain stem is very high-priced real estate,” Schiff says.
Previous infections to blame?
On the day of the surgery, doctors told David he’d see his father in a few hours. And that night, the local news aired a feature story on the operation and said David could be going home in three days.
Francel and his team discovered the golf ball-sized tumor was pilocytic astrocytoma, usually found in children and treated with surgery depending on its location in the brain.
In the weeks following the surgery, Francel said David was able to breathe on his own for short periods and follow rudimentary commands but eventually succumbed to infections he had been battling since before the operation and became brain dead. Why David never recovered is unclear, only that these types of operations are risky and Francel said the boy was in a weakened state before the surgery.
Francel said the father was frustrated with his son’s condition and removed him from the case.
Kurbanov had also battled with the hospital over visitation hours, but that has since been resolved.
The hospital says it has tried looking for other facilities to take David, as Kurbanov has requested, but none will accept a brain dead patient.
Kurbanov said he will keep vigil, even though doctors say there is no chance for recovery and have asked to harvest the boy’s organs for transplants. Kurbanov does not trust them, or the medical charts written in a language he doesn’t understand.
He says David breathed on his own recently with some assistance from a ventilator, and he spotted slight movement in his arms and shoulders.
“All he needs is proper care and a careful approach to treatment,” Kurbanov said.
“My boy is alive,” he said. “God is with him.”