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For six hours, Dr. Peter Baginski lay wide awake in the tunnel of a magnetic resonance imaging machine in a Zurich hospital while sporadic pulses of focused ultrasound penetrated his skull and slowly burned a hole through the inch-long tumor deep in his brain.

The procedure was painless, but his head felt "almost unbearably hot," Baginski said, even though cold water circulated through a helmet-like device designed to moderate the temperature.

A team of 10 people, including three Swiss neurosurgeons, monitored the unprecedented procedure on March 4 to treat glioblastoma, a rare but deadly cancer of the brain.

That night, Baginski, a Forestville physician who turns 64 today, enjoyed a splendid dinner in his hospital room, surrounded by his wife, Cheryl Hanson, and five family members. He was fit enough to leave the next day but remained at the hospital for a week, allowing his doctors to monitor their human guinea pig.

Baginski, who already had beaten the odds by surviving five years with a cancer that usually kills in 13 months, became the first and only person to undergo successful focused-ultrasound treatment for a brain tumor.

Successful in the sense it did him no harm. Baginski's procedure was part of a Swiss clinical trial to assess the safety — not the effectiveness — of the treatment that advocates say could revolutionize treatment of brain tumors and other cancers.

Out of caution, the doctors limited his exposure to ultrasound, burning a single hole in the tumor. Four days later, they were pleased to see more holes, with the tumor resembling a piece of Swiss cheese.

"Peter took a leap of faith," said Hanson, his wife of 39 years, sitting at the dinner table in their home near the end of a quiet west county lane.

Baginski, who speaks slowly and sparingly because of mid-brain damage from the tumor, said it was merely a safe bet.

"I had nothing to lose, actually," he said. "Just a lot of money, but everything to gain."

There was no charge for the six-hour procedure, but the hospital care, tests, imaging and other ancillary services came to $22,000, and that's not counting airfare and other travel expenses of a two-week trip to Switzerland.

Hanson, 64, a Santa Rosa Junior College instructor, compared it to the Mastercard commercial tagline: "Saving your loved one's life - priceless," she said.

In reality, Baginski was out of options.

There's a large, inverted U-shaped scar on the left side of his bald head marking the location of the conventional surgery Baginski had five years ago to remove his first glioblastoma. It was the same type of cancer that killed Sen. Ted Kennedy in 13 months, the standard life expectancy for the 10,000 people diagnosed each year with the disease.

Doctors at UC San Francisco opened the side of Baginski's skull in January 2009 and cut out most of the tumor. It's nearly impossible to get it all because the diseased brain cells, called glia, have long finger-like tentacles. Cutting deeply into gray matter to get to them will do the patient irreversible damage.

Baginski, a diabetes specialist for 25 years, recovered from the operation and went back to work part-time teaching residents in the UC family practice program at Sutter Medical Center and at Touro University in Vallejo. The couple traveled to Europe, Hawaii and the East Coast, and hiked with Lucy, their 15-year-old golden retriever.

"He was doing great," Hanson said. "We had a nice life."

By late last year, Baginski's balance was off and he had difficulty walking. An MRI in December revealed spots in his mid-brain region, which doctors thought was damage from his post-operative radiation treatment.

On Jan. 13, Baginski was working at Vista Health Center in Santa Rosa when he fell and broke his hip. Hanson took him to the emergency room, where she got a call from the neurooncoloist at UCSF reporting that the spots were actually a tumor. His cancer was back; this time too deep in the brain for surgery.

"I was very depressed, I must say," Baginski recalled in a steady voice.

But it was really no surprise: glioblastomas almost always return after surgery.

Baginski's family began searching for alternatives, and discovered the clinical trial in Zurich, one of just three trials for focused ultrasound using the ExAblate Neuro system made by an Israeli company called InSightec.

Baginski's condition was a perfect match for the trial, which is still searching for patients after scoring its first success with him. Doctors in Zurich readily waived the requirement that patients must be Swiss residents, based on his niece's address there.

The Focused Ultrasound Foundation, based in Virginia, hailed his procedure as a "key landmark event" in the evolution of ultrasound as a non-invasive treatment for brain cancer, an alternative to surgery and radiation.

At home now, Baginski is confined to a wheelchair as he recovers from the hip injury. He dresses casually — a corduroy shirt, down vest, slacks and bootie slippers — and undergoes rigorous physical therapy, leaving him "pooped at the end of the day," Hanson said.

"I am lucky, there's no doubt about it," he said.

Baginski's goal is to get out of the wheelchair and resume walking as he continues to beat the odds.

There's no prognosis for his condition because he is in "uncharted territory," Baginski said.

"You're a pioneer," Hanson said, touching her husband's hand.

But beneath their domestic ease lies a profound urgency. The Swiss surgeons intentionally burned away only part of Baginski's tumor, and it's the most aggressive brain cancer in humans.

He's now hoping for a second ultrasound treatment in Zurich, Charlottesville, Virginia or Seattle.

"We shouldn't wait too long," Peter Baginski said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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