Have you ever thought you were physically more robust, flexible, and agile than in reality? I had convinced myself of this falsehood in 2020. During the height of the pandemic, on a cold winter night, out of boredom, I decided to showcase and brag about my dazzling gymnastic abilities to my parents in the form of a bridge pose that rocked back and forth. The result? Over the next 24 hours, I was unable to walk and hunched over in severe pain.
Fast forward a year; I neglected to shovel snow properly and, again, doubled over in agony, unable to stand straight. In both of these instances, I seemingly recovered after a few weeks. Finally, in January 2023, when lifting my dog into the car, I heard a crunch in my lower back, which culminated in an inability to walk for a couple of weeks and experienced piercing pain with most movements. This time, recovery wasn’t in the cards. Coupled with a lower back issue, I began to feel a strong electric current coursing down my right leg, a constant source of aggravation and sleep loss. Despite all this, I still finished the downhill ski season, not wanting to suffer from FOMO. Talk about obsessive-compulsive!
Over the spring and summer of 2023, the sciatic nerve pain escalated; I was constantly sleep-deprived and felt agitated at the most minor things in life, never mentally operating at total capacity. In August 2023, at the urge of family and friends, tired of hearing me complain, I booked an MRI to discover the root cause of the issue.
The MRI results were immediate; I was diagnosed with degenerative disk disease, a deterioration of the lower three rungs of my spine. The issue was most likely caused by a curvature of the spine pre-existing from birth, along with the above-mentioned physical activities, which exacerbated the condition.
Armed with a diagnosis, for the first time in my life, I decided to embark upon a short-term leave of absence from my corporate career and take care of my mental and physical health.
In consulting with medical practitioners at Medcan, a Canadian privatized healthcare provider, I was provided with two options:
- Cortisone shots in the lower spine.
Pro — potential immediate relief?
Con — A band-aid solution that will not fix the root cause or extract positive benefits after some time.
- Titanium plates can be inserted into the lower spine via an operation.
Pro — not aware of any.
Con — 50% chance of success with high risk of issues later in life.
Neither of these options intrigued me, and I felt annoyed at the limitations of modern Western medicine. Have we yet to evolve beyond archaic practices?
I used my frustration as motivation to research other potential procedures to cure the issue, and after a mad Google search, I discovered stem cell therapy. But wait, aren’t stem cells made up of baby placentas and ethically questionable? No. Quite the contrary. We’ll return to the process in a moment.
Next, I contacted and met with Dr. Shammaa from the Canadian Centres for Regenerative Therapy in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for a clinical assessment to determine if I am an ideal candidate for a stem cell procedure.
Dr. Shammaa reviewed the MRI and affirmed the Medcan diagnosis:
Multilevel degenerative disc disease, most pronounced at L4-L5 with the central disc protrusion impinging upon thetraversing L5 nerve roots.
Given my age and active lifestyle, he confirmed I made an ideal candidate for the procedure, a spine issue he treats roughly once a month for other patients suffering the same circumstance. The most prevalent challenge is stem cell injections in the knee as a replacement for knee replacement surgery. The doctor also confirmed my suspicion that the sciatic nerve was pinched by one of the degraded rungs of the spine and would have to be decoupled during the procedure.
After giving Dr. Shammaa’s details more thought, I decided to embark upon the process, and we agreed upon Wednesday, November 8, 2023, for the date of the procedure. Since stem cell therapy is considered ‘experimental’ and not covered by the Canadian health care system, I incurred an out-of-pocket cost of 18K. Ouch.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
According to the Canadian Center for Regenerative Therapy, stem cells are a part of a field of research called Regenerative Therapy:
Regenerative Therapy is a branch of translational research in tissue engineering and molecular biology that deals with the “process of replacing, engineering or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function
The Mayo Clinic describes stem cells as:
Stem cells are the body’s raw materials — cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form more cells called daughter cells.
In my example, I was an excellent candidate for stem cell replacement therapy, as the Mayo Clinic continues to articulate:
Stem cells can be guided into becoming specific cells that can be used in people to regenerate and repair tissues that have been damaged or affected by disease
The Stem Cell Procedure
On November 8, 2023, the stem cell operation proceeded as planned at the Toronto clinic. Initial blood work was drawn to ensure vitals were functioning as expected, as you can see by my “joyous” expression in the picture below.
The next step included inserting approximately 25+ needles from my lower hips to the top of my back to freeze the entire area to ensure I remained awake for the procedure. While the process was agonizing, my body started to reject the needles halfway through and ejected some from piercing through the skin.
Once my back and thigh area were frozen, the doctor took a larger needled and extracted bone marrow from my right hipbone, which would be used to remove fresh stem cells.
Next, six strategically placed larger needles were injected into the lower three rungs of my spine, three on each side. Here, the new stem cells were injected into the six needles. I was able to feel fluid and movement in my lower back as the injections occurred, an odd and unpleasant sensation.
The grand finale saved the worst experience for last. I was required to stay awake for the process to verbally verify whether the sciatic nerve decoupled from being caught in the lower spine. Dr. Shammaa forewarned me of the pain to follow and provided a stress ball to hold onto. While he microscopically moved the sciatic nerve, I experienced highly sharp jolts of pain coursing through my lower back and right leg. SweatHot and cold sweat poured out of my body, and I screamed in agony, yelling obscenities that would make a nun’s face turn yellow. I felt like I was holding onto a high-powered electric fence, the source coursing through my body.
Overall, the process took approximately 3 hours, with a hopeful outcome. Not long after, I drank a glass of water, slowly sat up, and, with assistance, was placed into a wheelchair, hauled out, and moved into my car for a long journey home in rush hour traffic and pouring rain.
Aftercare & Recovery
As of writing the blog post, I’ve been in recovery for one month. Some days are better than others, and more recently, I have begun to feel more significant discomfort in my lower back, which may be a positive indication of an active healing response. Unfortunately, the healing process takes eight months to a year for stem cells to grow fully. I will know if the procedure works once I conduct a second MRI in late winter 2024 to visualize growth progress.
My body is currently experiencing extreme fatigue, which is normal, given the additional stress on the system. I have frequent brain fog and sometimes forget words, an often frustrating dilemma when speaking with friends and loved ones. Another annoyance is my inability to accomplish as many tasks as I used to due to exhaustion; I’m currently learning to go easy on myself with the knowledge this, too, shall pass.
A few weeks ago, I felt intense anger rising from within and became curious about where the emotion came from. After consulting my naturopathic doctor, she confirmed how, in Chinese medicine, there is a belief humans hold their frustration and fury within the lower back area (along with the liver). And given the invasive nature of the poking and prodding from the needles, there is little wonder I am expressing anger.
While in recovery, my sole objective is to create and maintain an anti-inflammatory environment within the body to ensure maximum success toward stem cell growth. The current protocol includes:
- Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
- Consume specific vitamins and minerals
- Cupping the back and the stomach
- Red light therapy
- Oxygenate cells in a hyperbaric chamber for 1–3 hours a day
In a future post, I will discuss the benefits of hyperbaric chambers in stem cell development, a fascinating topic.
My goal is to inform the public of the miracle of stem cell technological advancement; there are promising medical options beyond what traditional medical practitioners offer. I’m happy to answer any questions you have and will inform readers of progress once more information is known.