I received a message from a gentlemen, Gabe Piselli, on my Instagram account yesterday asking about my stem cell treatment I had underwent a few years back. So, this sparked my idea to write a little something about my experience.
After my injury I was constantly looking on the internet for something, ANYTHING, to help get me out of my current situation. You know… The internet is always right and has everything and anything you want to know. I began to search for a “cure for paralysis”… Not knowing that there was not really a cure on the market. After hours upon hours of looking and researching for that ONE thing that could possibly help me walk again. I met a man at the rehab facility I was at in Pittsburgh, PA, his name is Chris Niles. I had overheard therapist talking about this man who was going to another country to receive stem cell treatment. I NEEDED to talk to this guy! When Chris arrived home from his treatment and I was able to sit (well I guess we had no other choice than sit.. lol) and chat a little about his experience in Panama City, Panama at the Stem Cell Institute. We spoke back and forth for several months about his experience and if he thought that the treatment benefited him in a positive way. Which he had nothing but good things to say. I then was able to get in contact with a few others that had received treatment. Everyone that I spoke with had a good outlook on the treatment, but every single person had one thing in common. They put therapy as their number one priority and pushed the limits every day. If they felt tired or sick, they still went to therapy and gave it their all. NO, these people were not magically walking off the plane when they returned to the states (like I thought was going to happen)… But they definitely came back stronger and with a whole different game plan.
I was 19 years old with my whole life ahead of me and I did not want to regret missing an opportunity that could possibly change my situation for the better. This was not a quick decision; it literally took months to decide and research… I also had an UNBELIEVABLE support system that did fundraisers to make it possible for me to get this treatment (which I will never be able to thank those people enough).
Just about a year after my accident, everything was in place and off to Panama City, Panama we go. (My mom, girlfriend-now wife-, and grandfather came with me while my dad stayed back home to work due to the extended amount of time he had to take off during my hospital stay after my accident). My wife and mother stayed for 2 weeks and my grandfather had the joy of staying with me the entire month. I was super nervous and had no idea what I was in for. Sure, I talked to multiple people that underwent treatment, but when its actually “go time” for yourself its quite a different feeling. This was my first time EVER out of the U.S. and it wasn’t to go have fun… This was actually the very first time I had been on a plane after my accident, that alone was quite an experience. To get on and off the plane I had to transfer onto an “Isle Chair” because my wheelchair was to wide to fit between the plane’s seats. I was the first on the plane and the last off.
When we departed the plane a man was holding a sign that said “Zac Wolfe”, by the way, that man did not speak English and I had not a clue what he was saying. To say the least, I was a little scared. He took us to a really nice lounge to wait for our cab to the condo. In the lounge, a few others were there and they all spoke English, so the nerves sort of settled. Leaving the airport, were picked up in a handicapped van and we are on our way into the city. The entire ride my grandfather was trying to stir up a conversation with the gentlemen… My gramps just did not get that our driver had NO CLUE what the hell he was saying. He was a very nice man though, he helped us unload everything and even helped take our luggage up to our room. (Every person I met was so polite to us, which made this journey that much easier)
This is a little side note; the ENTIRE time we were down there we would have to be transported from the condo to the Stem Cell Institute by a driver that did NOT speak any English… Every single time we entered one of those vans my grandfather would try to have a full-on conversation with them. Now if you knew my gramps he will literally say hello or talk to anyone. I told him 10 times that they did not understand him, so basically, he was having a conversation with himself. I would just laugh and shake my head… After the 10th time I gave up.. This is just one of many things I will never forget about that trip.
Now back to the story.. The first day I went to the Stem Cell Institute they had to draw blood to run a few tests. I believe that they took 10 vials at least! Ok, I could be exaggerating but it definitely seemed like 10. The next day (second day) I was there I received my schedule of when I would receive injections and when therapy sessions were going to be, also on that second day I found out when my surgery would be to extract my bone marrow out of my hips for my treatment. If I remember correctly the first few weeks of treatment were umbilical cord stem cells. This was to boost my cell count up to be ready for when I would receive my own cells. I also had to wait for my own cells to be cultured after my bone marrow extraction. If you know me you know my fear of needles…. Let me tell you, I was pretty much a pin cushion down there. I had to get injections daily either in my arm or in my back. After the injections into my spinal cord I would have to go back to the condo and lay flat for 2-3 hours. Why did I have to do this? I had to because when the doctor did the injection into my spinal cord it would change the pressure in my cord. If I didn’t lay flat after I would get the absolute worst headaches! The other thing I remember having to do was drink TONS of water to stay hydrated.
On to the therapy sessions… Therapy was every day for 2 hours and wow was it intense! I went into this journey to Panama with an open mind, but I told the therapists that I wanted worked to my limits. I NEVER missed a day of therapy due to “I’m just not feeling up to it today”. These therapists had me doing things that I thought to be completely impossible. For example; I was crawling across the mat table like a baby, bringing each leg forward. At first, I did need quite a bit of assistance. By the time I left I was able to crawl forward and reverse on the mat table without assistance. A lot of times at therapy I would also be standing in parallel bars without my leg braces and therapists locking my knees out for me. The whole idea behind this was for me to keep my knees locked out when they would take the pressure off (by the time I left Panama my left leg was staying locked out on its own). Another main focus was practicing transfers from my wheelchair to the mat tables, this was very difficult. The therapists would not help unless I was going to fall and at first, I did need a lot of help due to my arm strength/balance. But guess what? By the time I left my arms and core were strong enough that I could transfer to the matt table with ease. These were things that were impossible prior to undergoing treatment. I learned that if you feel something is impossible at first KEEP TRYING.. You may just surprise yourself. I took a lot of these workouts back to the states with me to share with my therapists at Penn Highlands Elk and they were all for trying something new!
Another little side note and you guys are probably going to think that I am crazy! Every time that I gained more feeling or movement, I would taste peaches and my body would give off this weird odor. This is the honest to gods truth! My wife Brittney would even say “there is that smell”.
Ok, sorry back to the story! The part all of you guys have been waiting for…. Did it ACTUALLY help me? Before I get into this, I want to say that this is my experience and everyone is different! Now that being said, I also was doing therapy 6 hours a day (2 hours with the Panama therapists and 3 hours with my gramps), I would lay in bed and think about bending my legs while my grandpa bent them for me or I would do arm workouts, balance exercises. You name it I was doing it! My last 2 weeks in Panama my body started to feel “different” and I started getting a tingling sensation in my legs and even my arms, my core was noticeably stronger, my left hand was working better, I could feel pressure through my feet when I would stand with my braces, and my right triceps was starting to come back! I understand that this all could have been coming back to me without stem cell because my body was still “healing”. I understand that that, but in my own opinion I believe the stem cell treatment sped the healing process up.
After returning to the states it was go time! I returned to therapy at Penn Highlands Elk where taking a break was not in their vocabulary. These therapists knew the type of person I was and knew I wanted to be pushed to my limits at this point in my life. We collaborated and I showed them some of the workouts I had been doing in Panama, they threw their own twist on the workouts and away we went. Moving forward was my only option! I was working out 6 to 8 hours a day and I did not miss a day for anything! Therapy was my number 1 priority. Over the next few months, I continued to improve. The sensation throughout my body had came back to about 70%. I was able to take a few steps in my KAFO braces without the back support, this was a huge accomplishment. My balance was consistently improving, (I used to need quite a bit of help transferring to and from my wheelchair) I was actually doing transfers on my own with out almost face planting. One huge thing that I remember is when my right triceps had came back to life. Prior to treatment if I was laying on my back and would straighten my right arm my triceps would give out and my arm would smack me in the face. After a few months of doing therapy back home my therapists actually had me using some weight on my right arm and my triceps was getting stronger weekly! These steps forward were honestly worth my trip.
The moral of this blog is. Yes, I truly believe that the stem cell treatment did help me get over that “hump” and excel forward. Like I stated earlier everyone’s injury is completely different. I have talked with others that went through stem cell treatment and they feel it did nothing. Maybe it was my attitude? I went down with an open mind and was ready for what ever was in store for me. One thing I will say.. What ever I did over that year after treatment I must have did something right because I regained a lot of important functions and feeling throughout my whole body! WORK HARDER THAN OTHERS AND DO THINGS OTHERS WON'T DO.. YOU WILL GET PLACES OTHERS WILL NEVER GO.
I could talk about this trip for days! If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email.
Since this trip I have not been able to eat eggs. Why is that? My grandpa does not waist anything and we had a little over a week left in Panama. We had 3 cartons of eggs in the fridge and they all had to be gone by the time we left.. I was eating eggs with EVERYTHING! Eggs with rice, eggs with salsa, eggs with cereal, you name it I probably at eggs with it. Needless to say I not eat eggs to this day. Lol Thanks gramps!