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'IT'S BEEN A LONG JOURNEY'

Treatment in Mexico finally takes away the debilitating pain.

For almost a year, Mary Sutton's body was racked with pain.

A neurological disease debilitated her left side, forcing the 33-year-old into a wheelchair.

The smallest sensation was painful, from the light pelt of a raindrop to holding a blow dryer. Skin ulcers ravaged her arms and legs.

So Sutton, 33, jumped at the chance to head to Mexico and undergo an experimental treatment that would ease the pain caused by reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD, and help her regain her life.

Now Sutton is pain free and using a walker to get around.

"I feel like a brand-new person," she said. "It's been a long journey."

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One day in December 2006, Sutton woke up and couldn't move her arm.

It wasn't long before a sharp, jabbing pain ripped through the left side of her body. Neurologists prescribed pain medications, but nothing worked.

At one point, the vision in Sutton's left eye became fuzzy. Her eye doctor said she might have RSD, a disease brought on by trauma, such as a broken bone, that can cause the nervous system to send signals to the brain causing chronic pain.

Sutton was referred to Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick, who diagnosed her with RSD. In Sutton's case, the origin was difficult to pinpoint.

Even so, Kirkpatrick tried to ease Sutton's pain using nerve blocks, or back injections that relieve pain.

When that didn't help, Kirkpatrick suggested an experimental treatment that would put Sutton into a coma for five days, essentially shutting her body down and rebooting it using a heavy dose of an anesthetic called ketamine.

Sutton was reluctant at first. But when the pain forced her into a wheelchair, and small ulcers began to ravage her skin, Sutton agreed.

So Sutton and her parents left for Monterey, Mexico, on Jan. 2. An aunt took care of her 7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

Sutton's parents paid for the $32,000 procedure, and a fundraising walk at her daughter's school raised $9,000 for Sutton's medical costs.

"It was her last hope," said Sutton's mother, Ethel Dzikonski. "What do you do, you know? No pills, nerve blocks ... nothing helped."

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Ketamine is a legal anesthetic often used by doctors, but in low doses. A high-dosage ketamine coma, which Sutton experienced, has yet to receive a thumbs-up from the FDA.

Kirkpatrick said he tried to get the coma approved in the United States, but gave up after growing frustrated that the agency wanted more trials and information on the procedure. So he sought help from doctors in other countries to treat some of his patients who suffered from RSD. The treatment is also offered in Germany.

Kirkpatrick acknowledges that patients who undergo the ketamine coma may not wake up again. Some wonder if that's a risk worth taking.

"That's pretty risky, to put somebody to sleep for five days and suppress their reflexes," said Dr. Elliott Krane, a professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Stanford University's School of Medicine. "In the United States, that would require an intensive care unit."

Krane said that while a ketamine coma could work for some patients, getting FDA approval in the United States would be difficult.

"Anybody could do it (a ketamine coma) in the United States, if they wanted to," Krane said. "They could do it in their garage, I guess, but it wouldn't be a smart thing to do. You would never get an American insurance company to pay for it because it's such a wacky idea.

"It's one of those things you can get away with 90 times. But on the 100th time, you're going to kill somebody."

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Sutton went into her coma on Jan. 5, and came out Jan. 10. She doesn't remember much about her recovery, other than doctors asking her to open her eyes or squeeze their hands.

Soon, she began to do things she hadn't done in more than a year.

One of her biggest triumphs?

"She said, 'Look at this,'" recalled her mother. "'I can stand up.'"

Sutton even walked, holding on to a wheelchair while her mother walked alongside.

Sutton returned home on Jan. 24. A skin cream is helping her skin ulcers fade. Sutton will see Kirkpatrick every two weeks for three months to get a ketamine booster shot. Her insurance company won't foot the bill for the shots.

Kirkpatrick, who is opening an RSD research center in Tampa next week, said it's possible that Sutton's RSD could again flare up.

"She could set it off again, because once you get RSD, your body becomes an eggshell for getting it again," he said. "It doesn't take much of a bump or bruise to set it off again."

Sutton said she's aware her disease could recur. For now, she's enjoying the small things in life.

"To move your arms and legs, it's like a new beginning," she said. "A second chance at life."

That includes something Sutton hasn't experienced in a while.

Instead of hugging her mother only on the right side of her body - the side that was pain free - Elizabeth fully embraced her mother last week. Sutton hugged her daughter back and smiled.

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