LINCOLN — After two surgeries and a round of chemotherapy, Mimi Nekolite's 4-year-old son was back in the hospital, strapped to a table being measured for radiation treatment.
Michael's brain tumor was back.
On the drive home, his mother concluded that she and her son had had enough. The O'Neill woman decided to seek an alternative cancer treatment in the form of a vitamin known as laetrile.
On Friday, one year after he began taking laetrile injections, Nekolite coaxed her son to the front of a legislative hearing to lobby for a bill that would allow doctors to use laetrile to treat patients with terminal illnesses.
”Cancer free for one year,” said Michael's proud mother, who was followed by several other former cancer patients at the hearing who said they were cured by the vitamin known as B17.
The idea that laetrile cures cancer was disputed by some of the state's top medical doctors at the hearing before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.
Dr. Charlie Andrews said the drug is used by ”quacks” to make money, offers false hopes to cancer patients and can have lethal repercussions.
”Historically, laetrile has been used primarily by quacks, physicians most interested in making money, who have no qualms about taking advantage of vulnerable patients,” Andrews said.
Andrews is the chief medical officer for the state's Health and Human Services. He issued the order that determined Nekolite's physician, the late Dr. Otis Miller of Ord, was negligent and unprofessional in using the drug.
Miller's disciplinary hearing, which led to his temporary suspension last year, put the issue of laetrile in the forefront in Nebraska.
Miller died last week — the same day he was fined and reprimanded by Andrews.
State Sen. Cap Dierks of Ewing said the issue was about personal freedom. He introduced the bill, saying he's a believer. ”The medical profession just refuses to consider any alternative medicines,” Dierks said.
Lawmakers previously rejected legalizing laetrile for doctors in 1980. The vitamin is legal for private use, Dierks said. However, medical professionals warned that it can be deadly if ingested orally.
The vitamin comes from certain fruits and vegetables, Dierks said, such as grape and apricot seeds.
Dr. Ron Klutman of Columbus, the president-elect of the Nebraska Medical Association, said numerous studies have shown laetrile to be ineffective, including a comprehensive study done at the Mayo Clinic in 1980.
He said there have been five to six documented deaths caused by the ingestion of laetrile, which turns to cyanide.
Another physician, Dr. Alex Thermos of Omaha, said alternative methods should be given a chance. He said laetrile should be legalized in Nebraska so it can be monitored.
”The only person who seems to have a choice here is the person who chooses to leave the region,” Thermos said.
In other business Friday:
— Legislators gave 36-1 initial approval to a bill (LB939) to change a 1995 law that gives businesses tax breaks for creating jobs in Nebraska.
Omaha Sen. Pam Brown wants to give companies seven years instead of five years to create the 500 jobs and invest the $50 million needed to qualify for the incentive funds. Sen. Ernie Chambers, who opposes the measure, said the driving force behind the bill is Illinois-based Caterpillar, which wants to set up shop in the Omaha area.
The bill faces two more rounds of debate.
— Debate began on a bill (LB822) to let the state's teachers to retire at age 55. The so-called ”Rule of 85” would allow teachers who are at least 55 years old and whose age and total number of years of service equal 85 to hang up their rulers. Currently, teachers are allowed to retire when their years of service and age equal 90.
— A bill (LB1057) overhauling the state's driver's license renewal process was advanced by the Transportation Committee for floor debate.
— The Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on three proposals aimed at regulating large livestock operations.
One bill (LB1196) has the support of a 14-member coalition of agriculture-related groups, such as the Nebraska Cattlemen. That bill, introduced by Sen. Stan Schellpeper of Stanton, would create a statewide commission to oversee large animal facilities and would deny an application to an entity that violated environmental laws in other states.
It also would appropriate $200,000 to the Department of Environmental Quality to hire more inspectors.