He has suffered countless seizures, undergone multiple brain surgeries and even more medications, but the answer to a 22-year-old Clifton native's prayers seemingly hinges on the controversial use of medicinal marijuana.
In 1998, Tim Dagiau's mother, Kathy, received an emergency phone call from his elementary school.
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During what she called a surreal conversation, the school staff said her son had suffered a massive seizure so severe emergency personnel had reported no pulse and were forced to use a defibrillator to revive the 9-year-old.
Tim, the family learned, was an epileptic.
"I was shocked and remember thinking they've called the wrong person," she said. "He is my only child so I can't even convey what that felt like."
Kathy and her husband, Gary, a lifetime Clifton resident, are both employees of pharmaceutical companies. The couple utilized every source they collected during their years in the industry to employ the best neurologist they could find.
Over the course of the next 12 years the Dagiau family exhausted every possible option which could help alleviate the severity and frequency of Tim's seizures.
"I've been on 12 medications - all failures - which left me having countless seizures," Tim said. "When I was 17, I had brain surgery to remove part of my right temporal lobe, where the seizures were suspected to be originating, but that was simply one more failed attempt to remedy my ailment."
Two summers ago, Tim decided to attempt surgery one last time.
Doctors removed the remaining parts of his temporal lobe, which did not halt the seizures, but did leave him paralyzed on his left side. Tim spent the greater part of the 2008 summer in rehabilitation progressing from barely being able to open his left hand to picking up a glass to today, being able to juggle.
"It's hard to put into words," Gary said of witnessing the challenges his son has faced. "Tim has the courage of a lion and we are just as proud as could be of him. We just try to be supportive of whatever his medical decisions are."
In lieu of the numerous surgical procedures and medications which had failed, Tim's next move, seemingly a last resort, invoked the unconventional.
The idea of using marijuana for medical purposes did not enter Tim's mind until his senior year in high school.
An 18-year-old at the time, he recalled the immediate effect marijuana provided upon his first puff.
"I would typically recollect memories of past seizures on a constant basis throughout the day," Tim explained. "But as I inhaled, my thoughts of seizures disappeared for the first time in eight years."
Dr. Carl Bazil, a neurologist who specializes in epilepsy and has treated Tim for the last eight years, called it a "miraculous" turn of events.
"Basically there are no controlled or scientific studies showing marijuana actually helps epilepsy," Bazil said.
"However, there are indications because in Tim's case it was dramatic considering he was someone who had pretty much failed every drug out there, had unsuccessful brain surgeries to try and fix his epilepsy, but noticed that when he smoked marijuana his seizures stopped."
Because Bazil is licensed by the state of New York, he could not prescribe Tim with medical marijuana.
Following his freshman year at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., Tim, who plans to ultimately attend law school, decided to transfer to Colorado State University. At the time Colorado was one of 12 states in the country authorized to prescribe medicinal marijuana.
"I got licensed to use marijuana legally and it actually worked," he said. "My seizure patterns diminished to nearly zero - a reduction from about 15 per month - and I turned around my life. The absence of social anxiety allowed for me to become heavily involved and assertive."
His mother remembered thinking how crazy it sounded that her son may have been awoken from a medical nightmare thanks to a dose of pot taken once a day before bedtime.
Unfortunately, the dream didn't last long.
Tim quickly discovered his home state of New Jersey had not legalized the medical use of what had become his wonder-drug. The medicinal marijuana Tim was prescribed while in Colorado could not be transported, used or possessed in the Garden State without breaking the law.
As a result, Tim spent the last three years in fear, terrified that a return home for the holidays or to visit friends would be punctuated with the return of the violent seizures which marijuana had quelled at school.
"He's afraid to come home," his mother said. "How unfair is that?"
Although Kathy called the stigma attached to medical marijuana "ridiculous," she also stipulated she did not allow Tim to smoke marijuana during his time at home because she knew it was illegal.
The situation left her son stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"The sudden divorce from cannabis provoked violent seizures, thereby leaving me trapped in Colorado with my only efficient treatment," Tim said.
On Jan. 11, however, Gov. Jon Corzine signed Senate Bill 119 into law, making New Jersey the 14th state in the union to legalize medical marijuana.
The law protects "patients who use marijuana to alleviate suffering from debilitating medical conditions…and those who are authorized to produce marijuana for medical purposes" from "arrest, prosecution, property forfeiture, and criminal and other penalties."
Some of the approved conditions include epilepsy, glaucoma, severe nausea or vomiting, HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.
"It was amazing to learn that the law passed," an excited Tim said. "I finally was awarded the opportunity to be healthy while with my family."
Tim said he hopes to receive his license to possess medicinal marijuana in New Jersey when he returns this summer to intern in New York City.
Ken Wolski, the executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, Inc., said he hears stories like Tim's every day.
Wolski began his involvement with medical marijuana in the early 1990s when he met an American expatriate in Europe named James Burton who had suffered from glaucoma and had been unsuccessful in finding any medications effective in controlling the disease.
Several of Burton's family members had already gone blind due to glaucoma and his own eyesight was deteriorating quickly, Wolski said.
But in his mid-30s Burton tried marijuana for the first time and immediately noticed improvement in his vision. A farmer by trade, Burton decided to grow marijuana on his land but the government discovered the illegal pot plants, and, after his conviction spent a year in jail.
While incarcerated – partially in a maximum security prison – the government seized his home and his farm.
Upon his release from prison Burton fled America never to return.
"This was one of the worst cases of social injustice I had ever encountered," Wolski said. "This man had to leave America to find freedom. I vowed I would try to stop this injustice from happening to other people."
Wolski said medical marijuana is a national issue and said New Jersey citizens, like Tim, should be able to travel anywhere in the country and use their medicine without fear of arrest.
However, it will be another five months before the new state law is enacted so Tim will not be able to receive a prescription for medical marijuana while at home until this June.
BY TONY GICAS
February 19, 2010
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