Darek Fidyka: the Polish Factor.

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One of the features of Darek Fidyka’s extraordinary story which has excited less remark in recent days is that the first broken spine in history to be mended by surgeons is Polish. The first steps of a previously paralysed man – described by the project’s neurologist Professor Geoffrey Raisman as “more impressive than man walking on the moon” – were taken by Polish feet.

Actually, the early media coverage of this story identified the 40-year-old Fidyka as “Bulgarian,” but later reports promoted him to a “Polish fireman” and a resident of Poland. Maybe we should reclassify his spine as being of unknown origin, with Anglo-Polish modifications.

Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down after a knife attack in 2010. He was first selected as a patient by Dr Pawel Tabakow following three instances of water-testing surgery upon other patients at Wronclaw University Hospital. Tabakow was inspired by a technique which had been used previously on rats by Professor Raisman at University College London. Raisman had theorised that olfactory ensheathing cells would stimulate the regeneration of nerve cells within the spinal cord. Fidyka’s transplant required the building of a “bridge” between the two halves of his spine, using his own olfactory cells and some nerve tissue from his ankle. Everything seems to have so far held together.

Before proceeding, I should wrinkle my face up for a moment at the miracle: one swallow does not a summer make, and one feat of surgery does not amount to a cure for paralysis. Dr. Simone Di Giovanni, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, has urged “extreme caution” in interpreting this research and he has even ventured that “there is no evidence that the transplant is responsible for the reported neurological improvement.” In a tense three-hour examination, footage of which was broadcast on this week’s BBC Panorama by Fergus Walsh, the independent expert Professor Wagih el Masri ultimately deferred rather than passed judgement on the surgery’s merit. The long-term significance of the surgery is yet to be seen; everything in fact rides on future attempts to replicate Fidyka’s recovery.

But the parade continues despite the rain. And I am more interested in the wider political and cultural context of Fidyka’s recovery than its status as a monument of neurosurgery. If Fidyka has been cured, then he was cured by a cross-border collaboration between a British neurologist, Polish-based surgeons, British fundraisers, and Polish victims of paralysis who were willing to go under the knife. Questions of finance are particularly important: a Polish man is on his pins again because of funding from two British charities, the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation and the UK Stem Cell Foundation. Whilst the latter receives some piecemeal state funding from the UK Medical Research Council, most of the money is freely donated by the public. Contributions from big pharma are conspicuously absent. Of course, curing somebody with their own cells does not require any new pharmaceutical product, and there is, in any case, more money in keeping people paralysed (treatment, painkillers, antidepressants) than putting them back on their feet.

Immigration does not play any specific role in this story, although it is worthwhile observing that foreigners travelling to the UK for surgery are generally identified as a “threat” by our legislators. I’m unable to tell if the transplant would have gone any more smoothly if Dr. Tabakow had been invited to operate on Fidyka in London, but it was probably easier for the researchers to accomplish their miracle outside of the UK. Do you want to be a marvel of science in our country? Well unfortunately you don’t meet the necessary residency criteria and your tax contributions are below the threshold.

Yes, Fidyka’s recovery is something to be brandished by those of us who have supported Polish immigration to this country through thick and thin, both when it was trendy and when it was scary. It has immeasurable value as a symbol. The current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband (spit!) claimed in 2011 that “we got it wrong… we underestimated the level of immigration from Poland, which had a big effect on people.” In another tawdry mea culpa he admitted that, “we did allow the entry of Poland into the free movement of labour too quickly.” You see, those Poles who moved to Britain, applied their expertise to British production, gave their custom to British shops and businesses, helped our economy to keep going, set up homes and educated their children here, all of this was, for Miliband, a mistake. Whole communities should have never happened. Whilst Fidyka’s recovery has no bearing upon the narrow practicalities of immigration, on the broader issue of a historical and cultural partnership between two nations, this matters.

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