ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (WBTV) – Roberta Coleman drove to and from her job as a corrections officer every day in pain.
For years, her arthritis has caused excruciating pain in her foot.
It was one day during her commute that she decided she’d try a new weapon in her fight to live a normal, pain-free life again. She decided to call the number for a doctor’s office advertising stem cell therapy.
The number she wrote down from the radio advertisements in rural southern North Carolina was for Advantage Health and Wellness in Florence, S.C. The practice also uses the name Accident, Injury & Rehabilitation Center.
Between the radio commercials she heard every day on her commute and the information she got by calling the office, she decided it was worth a try.
“They could fix pain, arthritis, problems in the joints, that it was some sort of miracle cure to fix everything,” Coleman recalled thinking about the stem cell therapy she would get.
She and her family paid a big price for the prospect of a pain-free life: $6,000 cash. Insurance doesn’t cover stem cell injections, so all the treatment had to paid for out of Coleman’s pocket.
That cost covered two injections of plasma rich platelets - known as PRP - and the stem cell injection.
“They said they inject one billion stem cells from a place, I believe, was in California,” Coleman explained. “And that it’s shipped in frozen on dry ice and you make an appointment that day to get it injected.”
“After you had the stem cell treatment, was it the magic bullet cure, all that it was promised to be?” a WBTV reporter asked.
“No, sir,” Coleman said.
“What would you call it?” the reporter asked.
“A scam,” Coleman said.
After a year of ongoing pain, Coleman went back to Dr. Kent Ellington, a foot and ankle specialist at OrthoCarolina.
Ellington nearly laughed when Coleman told him the doctor’s office she’d gone to for stem cell therapy, used stem cells from a lab in California.
“He pretty much told me that I had been played, for a lack of better words,” Coleman said.
That’s because, according to Ellington, stem cell therapy involves harvesting cells from a patient’s own body - not ordering them from a lab - and injecting them back into the target area.
“And I’ve seen patients come into the office and they tell me they had stem cell injections and I ask them where they did they get the stem cells from, meaning like did it come from their iliac crest - from the their pelvis or from other bone marrow - and they tell me, ‘California,’ and, so, that would be a red flag,” Ellington said.
Ellington said there’s another reason why the treatment Coleman described paying for was suspect: the type of end-stage, bone-on-bone arthritis Coleman has can’t be treated with stem cells, since there is no tissue to re-grow.
According to Ellington, stem cell therapy can be an effective course of treatment in some patients with specific joint and tissue problems but it is far from the cure-all that radio advertisements would have you believe.
“What’s important is they have to be used for the right indication and the right setting, the right patient population, the right condition, the right diagnosis,” he said.
A doctor from Advantage Health and Wellness, where Coleman received her treatment, refused to answer questions from WBTV, even if Coleman were to sign a privacy waiver allowing the practice to answer questions about her case.
Instead, an attorney for the practice issued the following statement:
“The Accident, Injury & Rehabilitation Center has a history of helping people and the practice stands behind the services provided to this patient. As federal law protects this patient’s health information, we will not discuss her individual situation. However, the practice began providing PRP and regenerative medicine because of the benefits that providers at the practice had personally experienced through use of these services, and the practice has witnessed many patients have excellent results from these services. The practice never received any form of complaint from the patient involved in this matter. As with all clinical treatments, there are no guaranteed outcomes, but the practice wishes this patient well and looks forward to continuing to providing excellent care and improving on patient satisfaction.”
The website and Facebook page for Advantage Health and Wellness - which came up in Google searches for both names used by the practice - were taken offline on Monday, the day this story was set to air.
A spokeswoman said the practice was in the process of being sold, but could not explain why the website and Facebook page were both operational the week before the story was set to air and taken down by the air date.
Ellington and his colleagues at OrthoCarolina see promise in stem cell therapy and other forms of regenerative medicine but, Ellington said, the treatments are still so new, there is not a standard methodology for how to use the therapy yet.
“It’s definitely rather new technology,” Ellington said. “We’re trying to be very safe and ethical in educating patients that it’s available and it might be for you but it might not be for you.”
If you ask Roberta Coleman, she’ll tell you about her wasted year of pain and the $6,000 she spent without relief.
“It’s probably not going to do you a bit of good,” Coleman said of the treatment.
Because of that, Coleman cautioned anyone who is thinking of having stem cell therapy to research their physician and make sure the doctor has considered the science behind whether the treatment will work for their specific ailment.
“Research it,” she said. “Look into it better than I did.”