For most of the evening, Hannah Pallas sat quietly in her wheelchair, gazing forward as her mother, Heather Shuker, and others talked about the importance of the Pennsylvania legislature passing medical-marijuana legislation this fall.
In fact, some people might not have even noticed Hannah sitting at this past August's public meeting in the Bradford Woods Community Church. But what they couldn't miss was the vision of her on the church's video screen, wearing a white T-shirt and pink helmet, crashing to the ground, moaning, wailing, crying, trembling.
Her mother made the video capturing Hannah's seizures so people could see what intractable epilepsy has done to her daughter and thousands of children like her across the state. The condition causes hundreds of seizures — as many as 300 a week for Hannah — that can't be controlled by medication.
However, there has been strong anecdotal evidence that cannabidiol, an extract from the marijuana plant, can be helpful to children like Hannah. Medical marijuana has also been shown to help fight symptoms of other medical conditions including PTSD and Parkinson's, and to help with pain management in cancer patients.
Medical marijuana has long had its legislative supporters in the state, but it wasn't until Lebanon County Republican Mike Folmer got involved that supporters began seeing a real likelihood of the bill being approved. A slightly watered-down version of the bill passed the Senate last week, and in August, Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach told City Paper that he believed the bill could pass the House with enough votes to withstand Gov. Tom Corbett's likely veto.
But before a vote can ever happen, the bill must first be brought to the House floor. And Allegheny County Republican Mike Turzai, the House Majority Leader, isn't a particular fan of the bill. He has said on more than one occasion that he wouldn't support it. In the GOP-controlled House, it's Turzai's call whether to bring the bill up for a vote. He and his spokesman, Steve Miskin, have said that any legalization efforts should come from the federal level instead. (This is that rare instance in which a Republican isn't rushing to point to states' rights.) But since the bill passed the Senate, there has been some conversation indicating that Turzai is at least willing to consider assigning it to a committee for a hearing. (CP reached out to Turzai, but hadn't received a reply by press time.)
The problem with more hearings, however, is the time it's costing vulnerable patients across the commonwealth. By her mother's count, Hannah Pallas has between 100 and 300 seizures every week. The state House has just five legislative days left — four in October and one in mid-November, after the election, where no votes are likely to be taken — before breaking until early January. And if the House doesn't consider the bill now, the entire process must begin again in the new year.
At minimum, that's about 12 weeks before the bill can be considered again — or roughly 3,600 unnecessary seizures for Hannah Pallas. Hannah's own doctors have submitted letters of recommendation indicating that the drug could help the child. And one of those doctors, pediatrician Lidia Cormini-Turzai, is married to the legislator who can keep this ball rolling.
Watch the video (below) and see if it doesn't affect your thinking on the issue. Stories like Pallas' have changed the minds of others. According to a Sept. 16 report from WESA 90.5 FM, House Republican Mike Vereb said it was a video like Pallas' that opened his eyes: "As a father of three, I cannot simply look into the eyes of these kids and see that suffering without wanting to help."
Ironically, that's the problem: It's too easy for lawmakers to rely solely on their own opinions and moral compasses, and vote no because they have no real sense of the stakes involved.
If Mike Turzai, or any other legislator in the Pennsylvania House, plans to block this bill from a fair vote, he shouldn't do it from a chamber in Harrisburg. He should be forced to watch the video of Hannah Pallas falling to the ground from her seizures, and then tell her face-to-face that he's blocking her from a drug that could potentially save her life because it goes against his principles.
Maybe then, for once, those in the moral majority would realize that their personal beliefs aren't any more important than anyone else's. And that, in this case, they're worth a whole lot less.
A video that Heather Shuker made to illustrate her daughter's daily struggles with intractable epilepsy