Cord Blood Stem Cell Treatment for Woman with Spinal Aneurysm
By Justin Boulmay, Rocky Mount Telegram, February 11, 2007
Dawn has wanted to visit the second floor of her new home ever since she moved in. But it is something that she has to this day, been unable to do.
However, physically going to the second floor is now a few small steps closer to becoming a reality.
Seeking treatment for a spinal aneurysm she suffered when she was 20 years old, the now 28-year-old Dawn traveled to the costal city Shenzhen near Hong Kong. Her mother Phyllis accompanied her on the trip.
She used a wheelchair to get around but was able to recover some movement and ability in her limbs over the years. Then last year, she found another treatment that could help her make much greater progress: stem cell injections.
Instead of using controversial embryonic stem cells, the Chinese clinic uses cells harvested from umbilical cord blood. Autism, heart failure, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are highlighted on the clinic website as other conditions they have successfully treated.
In the United States, intense debate has surrounded embryonic stem cells and their extraction process. Opponents claim that research violates the sanctity of life while supporters of the practice argue those cells could be used to fight diseases.
Dawn read a patient blog on the internet written by an individual who had been treated at the Chinese clinic and spoke with several other patients who had similar results. The blog and information from other patients allowed her to overcome her initial skepticism over the Chinese group’s claims.
The decision was made, and after several people came to aid during a fundraising effort orchestrated by Dawn and her mother, they were able to afford the thousands of dollars needed to travel and receive treatment at the clinic.
Dawn and her mother held an auction at the Rocky Mountain Moose Lodge, which volunteered the use of their building. Class fees were donated by Dawn’s physical therapist assistant L.D., who taught karate lessons.
He was hesitant about the treatment at first, but the eighth-degree black belt eventually approved.
"I did quite a bit of reading up on it," he said. "It was very untested in the United States, and from everything I read, the Chinese have had very good results."
The treatment and some of the flight expenses were paid for with the almost $22,000 they were able to raise with their efforts.
"We were just so blessed just to raise the money for the treatment," Phyllis said. "I mean, that was, gosh, more than I even thought."
Dawn’s journey culminated in China after two days of flying with stops in Atlanta, Los Angles, and South Korea. They started from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Oct. 28.
Dawn had three sessions of therapy per week in the United States. But she attended two sessions per day, six days per week, during her stay at the Shenzhen Hospital.
30 minutes of acupuncture treatment started her day each morning at 9 a.m., which the doctors followed by hooking electrodes to the needles to produce electrical stimulation to her muscles. After half an hour, they would take the needles out, strap pads to her legs and conduct the same treatment. Once they finished using the pads they had Dawn walk 30 minutes on the treadmill.
They stopped at 11:30 a.m. for lunch and resumed physical therapy at 2 p.m., performing exercises such as walking with crutches – which Dawn successfully attempted for the first time – and practicing posture.
Dawn said the staff would take naps in between sessions since there would be a long break.
"They have beds in the hospital. They go eat, they come back and take naps. They think working 9 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.) is so long," she said.
Phyllis spent time either reading a book or watching her daughter while she attended Dawn’s physical therapy sessions. She would go out to buy meals for both of them when she wasn’t there.
"Their hospitals don't feed the patients," Phyllis said. "The family feeds them."
But acupuncture aside, she received the stem cells she went there for, six times.
Dawn received one injection through an IV, and the other five in her back. And although there is no way of calculating the total number, her doctors estimated that each injection consisted of between 50,000 and 100,000 stem cells.
The IV injection gave the cells the chance to circulate through her body and not just her spine. And with the hope that they would serve as a bridge between her nerves and spinal cord, cells were inserted into her spinal fluid.
The cells were injected into Dawn’s spine while she slept thanks to sleeping gas. She had to lie down and curl up into a fetal position.
If she would have tired to get up too quickly, she could have gotten a headache so the doctor’s told her to lie still for four hours after the injection. She slept almost the entire time so it wasn’t any sort of issue for Dawn.
The doctors said for at least three to six months, there would most likely be no noticeable effects from the stem cell injections.
The mother ad daughter were no without their struggles during the trip, even though they enjoyed interacting with fellow patients and touring the city.
They were surprised by some aspects of city life. Broth was served as part of one meal during a trip to one Chinese restaurant. And even though Dawn enjoyed it, her mother was not to fond of the experience since she found a chicken foot in her bowl.
There was a Wal-Mart, KFC, and McDonald’s, making their surroundings not entirely unfamiliar.
Few people spoke English aside from some of the other patients. The local people provided them with plenty of memorable experiences. A group of school children became very curious about Dawn, and sent a little girl over to her to investigate.
"She ran over and popped me on the top of the leg, and then ran back to the other kids, laughing and giggling," she said.
Their were other challenges bedsides the new environment.
They did not have many opportunities to call home in the hospital, and this was particularly difficult for Phyllis who was used to being near her family. Dawn and her mother both tried to support each other.
"She was really the trooper through it all," Phyllis said of her daughter.
The two of them remembered the advice of another patient; the stem cells, when things did not turn out as they planned – such as not realizing the hospital didn't provide food.
"Everything else," they were told, "is icing on the cake."
Dawn noticed something unusual on December 11th while she took a shower in her Spring Hope home. She felt a cold sensation on her legs.
More so than previously, the sensation in her legs was stronger than it had ever been. She thought maybe a draft was blowing past the shower curtain but she looked to see it was still pulled back.
She'd been told it would be at least three months before she might notice anything, so she couldn’t be certain that the stem cells had taken effect.
"I can't swear that's what (did) it," Dawn said, "but I swear, things seem to change."
The progress may have been due to her therapy sessions as well, but the sensation she felt wasn’t the only sign of progress. Her ability to walk with crutches was improving. She was getting stronger as both Dawn and L.D. observed.
"From day to day, it's really hard," Dawn said. "You can get discouraged really, really easy, if you let yourself. But you have to keep remembering, I've got several more months to wait and see what happens. And then continue therapy. Things may change later on."
Sometimes that progress might be having only enough strength to walk on a leg, but not without assistance. For someone on the outside, that might not seem like much of a development, Dawn said.
"But it is from the inside looking out," she said, "because it gives you something to start working on."