Las Celulas Madres

It has happened. I have stem cells in my neck working 24 hours a day to rebuild my damaged spinal cord. On Friday, September 27, 2013 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I received an infusion of adult stem cells taken from my own blood, bone marrow and fat tissue into the C5-C6 section of my spinal cord, being one of the first "old" spinal cord injuries in history to be treated.

It feels damn good...

After nineteen years of hoping, one year of waiting, eight months of fundraising, two weeks of logistical planning and a three hour flight from JFK we stepped out into the hot Caribbean sun to be greeted by our driver, Tony. The son of Dominican parents who was raised in Victoria, Australia, he speaks fluent English with a Spanish-infused Aussie accent. It has to be heard to be believed. Professional, helpful, on-time and knowledgeable, we were immediately grateful for him. Driving anywhere new is never easy, let alone in a foreign country, but once on the highway we could clearly see why he was a part of Dr, Grekos' team. They may have three delineated lanes of traffic, but they cram in five, plus the motorcycles find whatever space they can. Santo Domingo is a major shipping port and the country is being flooded with foreign investment, but it is still considered a developing nation. Because of this Santo Domingo is not a vacation destination. It is a center for business and government. It is busy, crowded and confusing. Yet the people handle it all in stride with a kind of dignified joviality that Americans could learn a great deal from if they would take a moment to suspend national pride.

Arriving at the hotel

We arrived at the Hotel Barcelo to comfy rooms and awesome food. We rested, ate dinner and at 7pm that evening myself, my family, 2 other patients and their families had their first sit-down meeting with Dr. Zannos Grekos. For two hours we were briefed on the procedure, what to expect, how to prepare, etc. He answered all our questions eagerly and thoroughly. Despite the controversy surrounding Grekos he is upbeat and confident. He knows his science and it is immediately clear he is both comfortable in his own skin and certain of his purpose. And the work speaks for itself... with just over 600 stem cell treatments in a little over six years, an exclusively-developed, non-invasive delivery system, a team of trained staff, and an 85% success rate of 100% quality of life improvement this determined doctor from a small Florida community has a lot to be certain of.

Meeting Dr Grekos

Thursday morning I sat in the hotel restaurant watching my family and a room full of people chow down on the most amazing breakfast buffet I've ever seen knowing it would be at least another 36 hours before I had solid food. That was really annoying. I love food. At about 11am we arrived at the hospital which is only a few blocks from the hotel. No, we didn't walk. Our driver Tony was there to handle everything, including lift me from the wheelchair into the vehicle and back out again. Once at the hospital we were shown to a private wing in the facility's heart department. Behind an opaque glass security door was a state-of-the-art, spotlessly clean and completely exclusive prep/recovery room, surgery, laboratory, cath lab, and bathrooms in better state than most American hospitals I've seen. The nursing staff were kind and polite with a bedside manner that makes Americans look like... well... Americans. It was cold, meat locker cold, and I was flooded with memories of my experiences nineteen years ago. However, this time there was an element of excitement that kept the adrenaline pumping. In no time I was in a bed and on an IV drip awaiting the first procedure. Out of the three patients there for treatment they decided to take me first...

Waking up

The first procedure lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to just over an hour depending on the patient. It is a twilight sedation, but you remember nothing. First a small hole is drilled into the hip bone and bone marrow is harvested. They take a lot. Around 500cc which is roughly equal to a 12oz bottle of water. A liposuction is then performed and the same amount of fat tissue is drawn from the back. Upon waking up I was weak, sore and delirious. I have never handled anesthesia well, and this time was no different. I hate seeing double. I hate drifting in and out of consciousness. I was awake and alive though, and through the hard part. I slept in the recovery room the better part of the afternoon into the early evening and returned shaky and sore to the hotel.

Stem cells being processed
I did not sleep well that night. I craved electrolytes and downed an entire bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water. Still no food allowed. By 9am we were back in the van and back to the hospital. Same set of prepping protocol, but this time there is an air of excitement and relief that the rough part is behind us. While waiting to be treated Dr. Grekos came into the prep/recovery room holding 3 very large syringes holding each patients' stem cells. He proudly and excitedly informed us that I had the most healthy, most beautiful and the most plentiful stem cells they'd seen in over 600 treatments.

Stem cells awaiting injection
I was treated second. They roll you into the Cath Lab which is a combination surgery and MRI and slide you onto the "big table". This contraption is really the secret to the success of the delivery system. Using a tiny steerable catheter and the body's natural circulatory system they can reach and direct the stem cells to any location in the human anatomy. The MRI slides over the entire length of the table allowing the surgical team the ability to view wherever the catheter is at any given time. Only local anesthetic is required where a shunt is inserted into the femoral artery just below the right hip joint. When the catheter reaches the neck it feels like cool water in the veins. A tiny balloon at the tip of the catheter is inflated and dye is released that shows the arterial blood to the damaged area of the spinal cord. This burns, but dissipates quickly. When the doctors are satisfied they have the right spot, the moment you've hoped for happens...

In the cath lab
Las Celulas Madres is what the Spanish doctors call them. Literally translated it means "the mother cells". How profoundly appropriate. It moves me deeply when I think of them in these terms. Stem cells are essentially the vehicles within the body that carry the force of birth and regeneration. The protectors of life. How like a mother.


 When these tiny vehicles of life hit the spinal cord hot electricity floods the limp and paralyzed mass unexpectedly. I had forgotten how far my feet were from my head. The initial reaction is that the constant awareness of dead weight and the body not being your own begins to change. Right there on the table it feels apart of you again. Painful nerve damage steadily becomes replaces by warm, tingly circulation as the mother cells go right to work.


I have been home for a week now and so far... Improved circulation, reduced muscle spasms, better bladder and kidney function, comfort, sleeping better, temperature regulation, stamina, mental clarity, alertness, and reduced pain. So far so good. The next step? Patience. Patience, and therapy. Only this time with the hope and excitement that Las Celulas Madres are doing their part.

Thank you all for your incredible support and love.

















Comments

  1. emotionally moving and incredibly happy for you. Brig

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  2. Dear Caleb, I cannot express the depth of my excitement and joy at this news! I just read the post to the family and am having a difficult time restraining my tears. We love you so much. Stay strong and keep believing.

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  3. hello, my name is anthony waters, I have been eagerly following your journey... Congrats on your treatment and look forward to hearing about any progress. Good looking out

    C456 complete quad since 2003

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  4. I was there with Caleb through out the Dominican Republic experience and still this writing moves me to the depth of my being. You must surely know how much this all means to us. Our hearts are so full of gratitude to Dr. Grekos and his wonderful staff and to all of you who gave generously to Caleb in order to make this happen (and believed in his decision to move forward with this). It's a glorious beginning to a wonderful end.

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  5. Ah, Caleb..thanks for the report...i am so happy + excited for you...this is HUGE! Guitar is still here unsigned but will turn my attention to it...finger crossed for major stuff to happen...BRAVO to you and the doc and those mothers of cells! xoxo Cher

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  6. PS...listening to archived live feed of Richard Thompson who played this week end in SF at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass...seems appropriate...http://www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com/2013/webcast/sun-startower.html

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  7. Exciting beyond words, emotional and inspiring so so so happy for you Caleb and your whole family. Love you so much! Keep strong and know that we are praying for you and we look forward to hearing more. Cousin Jo

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  8. Thank you for the incredible up date! The best is yet to come.

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