It’s a story state Rep. Nick Zerwas has shared plenty of times before — it defines who he is today. But on Friday, it carried even more weight.
Before the final vote on his “Right to Try” legislation, which would grant dying patients easier access to some experimental medications, Zerwas told his colleagues on the House floor about the summer when he was 15. That’s when his big decisions were whether his Uncle Bob or his best friend, Ryan, would read his eulogy, or whether it would be appropriate for the local honor guard to show up for his burial. Zerwas, who was born with a three-chambered heart, was dying. His advice from doctors was simply to go home and spend time with friends and family.
Finally, one doctor approached him with a last-ditch proposal: an experimental procedure tried only in South America for patients with enlarged hearts. They would remove the right side of his heart, and replace it with a cow’s pericardium. Zerwas laughed, saying it would never work.
Even if it doesn’t, they were going to learn so much, his doctor told him. If they couldn’t save him, they could save the next 15-year-old boy.
“That was my right to try,” the 34-year-old Republican from Elk River told the floor. “We gave it a shot and we got it right.”
The House passed Zerwas’ bill, 123-0. It heads next to Gov. Mark Dayton, who says he will sign the bill, making Minnesota the sixth state to pass Right to Try legislation. Once it becomes law, patients who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses would have easier access to drugs, procedures or medical devices that are still undergoing clinical trials. The government currently allows dying patients to take experimental drugs under what’s called “expanded access,” or “compassionate use,” but Right to Try advocates say the bureaucratic red tape and the waiting period of months and sometimes years often is longer than the patient’s life expectancy.
The measure is not without its detractors. Dr. Stephen Miles, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, has called the law an attempt at deregulation, and pointed out that Zerwas was able to try his own experimental treatment nearly two decades ago without the Right to Try law. Advocates say it’s too early to determine whether Right to Try has benefited anyone, given that it’s less than a year old. There have been no legal challenges to it.
After his bill passed, Zerwas rose for a point of personal privilege. His parents, Tom and Chris Zerwas, were watching from the alcoves, and he wanted to thank them. The House joined him in a standing ovation.
“I probably wouldn’t have showed up if I knew he was going to do all that,” Chris Zerwas said with a laugh afterward outside the House chamber. “Nick, you made me cry again.”
The Zerwases say they’ve always been proud of their son, but this particular bill was special.
“We would look at Nick and say ‘We aren’t going to tell you you can’t try,’ ” she recalled of the long-shot procedure so many years ago. “We didn’t ever want to have to live with that thought, that we didn’t let him try.”