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Houston doctor Jeanine Graf has treated many of Stanislaw Burzynski's young patients. At Texas Children's Hospital, she sees them after they become unresponsive.

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Over the past 36 years, thousands of families have flocked to Houston doctor Stanislaw Burzynski in the hope that he will cure their child or loved one of cancer.

Burzynski has no hospital privileges and works out of a clinic. Patients and their families stay in hotels while visiting him.

If children deteriorate, they often end up in the closest emergency room, said physician Jeanine Graf, director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, who says she has treated at least a dozen of Burzynski's patients.

Typically, Graf sees Burzynski's patients after they have become unresponsive, unable to open their eyes or breathe on their own. Graf says she's never seen Burzynski attending to them.

And describing her personal experience with Burzynski's patients, Graf says, "I've never seen one survive long-term."

Their parents often go into debt to pay Burzynski's fees, Graf says.

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Facing the prospect of paying up to $300,000 out of pocket, parents beg for donations from strangers, tell their stories on local TV, hold fundraisers. The lucky ones get help from their communities: schools, businesses, even celebrities.

The unlucky ones end up broke, spending everything on medicine, airfare, hotel rooms and meals while in Houston, Graf says.

In the end, some of these families can't even afford to take their children home to die, she says.

When that happens, Graf asks her hospital's charity organization for money, and it never refuses — even when sending a child home requires the equivalent of a flying intensive care unit. A single flight on one of these specialized planes can cost $20,000.

Burzynski's attorney, Richard Jaffe, notes that all cancer care is expensive. Because insurance companies often refuse to pay for all or part of Burzynski's treatments, his clinic ends up writing off a lot of unpaid bills. "I think the clinic's policies are a lot more charitable than the big institutions," Jaffe says.

While Burzynski often meets patients on their first trip to the clinic, Jaffe said he is "not the treating physician of the clinic's patients." The doctors on Burzynski's staff have admitting privileges at local hospitals and "attend to patients as needed," Jaffe said.

After caring for some of the Burzynski patients, Graf said she wouldn't recommend his clinic to anyone. Although Burzynski's patients can't always be cured, she says, they do have choices.

"The most valuable commodity that a person with a terminal illness has is time," Graf says. "You want to make sure that when you're investing time in any therapy, that you are going to get a return on your very valuable last investment."

Contact Szabo: lszabonull@usatodaynull.com

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