Hopeful In Tijuana

When doctors in Los Angeles told Pat Paulsen they couldn't cure his colon cancer, he did what any comedian might do, he laughed them off. Fed up with conventional medicine, the TV comic followed a well-worn path to one of about 35 alternative clinics just across the border in Tijuana. The doctor he found - who asked the Paulsens not to name him - said he could beat the disease. Paulsen began the latest in live-cell therapy: an injection made from the embryo of a blue shark. He started to feel better and even talked about writing a new book: "Pat Paulsen's Book of Malignant Humor." But his immune system was wrecked, and last month he died of pneumonia after surgery.

For years, desperate Americans have gone to Tijuana hoping to cure their cancer with unorthodox or unproven treatments, such as the drug laetrile. Now, thanks partly to increased Internet exposure, Tijuana's medical bazaar is booming more than ever with new goods and services. Americans go there for discount tummy tucks and other low-priced plastic surgery. Others seek alternative therapies that American doctors won't touch and U.S. insurance won't pay for.

One case involves Alice Marie Porter, a 57-year-old Beverly Hills waitress. Last year a friend told her about Tijuana's Villa of Youth, where she could get a cheap eye-lift. She visited and heard its director, "medical businessman" Dr. Carlos Soria, tout a "12-day vacation that will change your life forever." It did. Porter signed up for a face-lift, liposuction and vaginal reconstruction, as well as the eye job. But after surgery her heart stopped. By the time an ambulance rushed her back across the border, she was brain dead. Her family is suing the clinic. Soria, who was not the surgeon, defends his clinic vigorously. He says it has had only two deaths in more than a decade but adds: "There is no way you can practice surgery without eventually having complications."

Many Americans have had nonfatal complications at other clinics. "I have seen women with holes the size of lemons in their thighs," says Joyce Palau, who advises visitors on natural remedies. After an outcry from reputable Tijuana physicians, Mexican health officials are reviewing all border clinics, and have closed two in the last two months (one claimed to cure cancer by pulling teeth). But there's little regulation of the market for "natural" cures. The Internet spreads the word about many treatments that seem to have little value. One clinic offers "colonics" - coffee enemas. Another advertises chelation - an amino-acid injection that, in theory, acts like a Roto-Rooter, cleaning the system of heavy metals. Such remedies "are as effective as moo goo gai pan," says biochemist Saul Green.

But many believers say they feel better. Often it's because of the old-fashioned bedside manner of Mexican doctors. "I think of this doctor as our family doctor now," says Paulsen's widow, Noma. The treatment strapped the family financially, but she says it was worth it: "It was working." For some desperate patients, hope may be Tijuana's only effective medicine.