Content warning: drug addiction, mental illness, disability
I remember the hot summer afternoon in July 2007 when I injured my back. It was a day that would change my life. I was 18, and taking part in a military program to qualify as a professional infantry soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces. My injuries all started during the first phase of a 10-kilometer walk, while carrying a 40-pound rucksack. As training progressed, I began to feel an odd sense of discomfort in my lower back. After I returned to my dorm later that day and unstrapped the rucksack, I felt a sharp pain going down from my lower back to my leg. Before bed, I took a couple of aspirin pills and washed them down with gin. The next morning, the pain had partly subsided, but the discomfort and feeling that something was wrong with my back stuck with me for days after. Weeks later, during another military exercise with a rucksack, I hurt my back so severely that I needed to see the nurse. At the time, I did not know that the following ten years would be comprised of pain from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed. This was the beginning of my struggle with chronic pain. Since then, I have been trying to find a way to cure my back, leading me to try regenerative medicine treatments such as Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) and stem cells.
For the past ten years, I’ve seen chiropractors, physiotherapists, psychiatrists, rheumatologists, osteopaths and virtually every health professional to treat my injury. I tried decompression therapy, kinesiotherapy, swimming, physiotherapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories drugs (NSAIDs), steroid injections, oral steroids, acupuncture, Chinese therapeutic massage, and praying – but nothing worked. After various treatments fell through, what made the journey of searching for a cure even more difficult was the general apathy from medical doctors in Canada. Some medical specialists thought that the extent of my injury did not match the severity of the pain, therefore, my pain was merely an illusion. They dismissed my medical condition and recommended that I “swim more” or become “more physically active.” While some doctors believed me, they still didn’t know how to help me. For almost eight years, I fought an uphill battle trying to convince medical professionals that I was worth their time and that I needed help. This struggle profoundly impacted my mental health.
I was stuck in a prison of pain from which I could not escape. 6 years after the injury, the pain has grown into a disability. There were days when I could barely walk or sit down for more than a few minutes. At times, my life felt like a nightmare. Activities most people take for granted, such as showering or cleaning a room, quickly became strenuous for me. Chronic pain also started impacting other areas of my life; my studies, my work, and even my relationships. I almost failed my first year of law school because of chronic pain. It made me start drinking again, and it put me into a state where I was consumed by narcotics and depression. After years of feeling despair and being unable to find an effective treatment through Canada’s healthcare system, I started looking into private medical practice in the US in 2015.
In January of 2016, I went to New York, where I had my first experience with regenerative medicine. I went to NY Spine Medicine to get the same treatment that Kobe Bryant had received for his knees a few years back in 2013 – Regenokine.
Regenokine is an anti-inflammatory serum made from the patient’s blood to suppress back and joint pain. The serum is made by taking some of the patient’s blood, heating it, and incubating it with zinc etched with glass beads. It is believed that the serum becomes rich in Interleukin 1 Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP), which is a natural anti-inflammatory. According to the medical doctors from NY Spine Clinic, once the serum is injected at the site of injury, it reduces the inflammation and speeds up the body’s own healing mechanism. It’s as if you had a strong dose of Tylenol directly injected in an ankle or your back.
The treatment is recent; it was first developed by a doctor in Dusseldorf, Germany around 15 years ago. NY Spine Medicine is one of the institutes in the US that offer this treatment, and the cost of it is obscenely high. The treatment cost me around 17,000 US dollars for four consecutive days of injections.
I had around about 600 ml of blood taken out, and in the next four days had the serum re-injected into my lower back: facet joints, epidural space, and all around the lower spine. At the beginning of my treatment, the pain was at an all-time high and I could barely sit for more than 5 minutes. Every day of injections resulted in more and more of the pain dissipating. On the last day, before my last round of injections, I woke up pain-free for the first time in years. Shaken by the relief and emotions, I started crying – I could not believe how good it felt to be free of pain. It was a miracle, but a short-lived one: the pain-relieving effects of the treatment only lasted for two months before my back started hurting once again.
Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP)
Few months passed after the Regenokine treatment and the memory of being pain-free started to fade away, but I still had hope. I kept dreaming of finding another treatment that could heal me completely. I began researching alternative treatments and eventually found the Centeno-Schultz Clinic in Colorado; they used Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) and stem cells to treat back pain.
My first treatment at the clinic was an injection of PRP in my lower back, neck, and hips. PRP is very similar to Regenokine in that it is an autologous serum – it is made with the patient’s blood. The difference is that while Regenokine works as an anti-inflammatory, the process by which PRP works is inflammatory. The doctor who treated me explained that PRP forces the body into a super inflammatory state, and as the inflammation subsides, it accelerates the reconstruction of ligaments and other tissues, which would in turn ease the pain. I had PRP injected into my sacroiliac joint, my lower back epidural space, and everywhere around my facet joints in my neck and back. In the first few days after the treatment, my pain levels flared up. However, in the next few weeks, the pain went down progressively, and I regained some degree of mobility. The most dramatic change was in my neck: the pain level went from a high 6-7 out of 10 to nearly a 1 within a few days. After a month, my lower back and hips felt as if they were almost healed. Although the effect of the treatment was not as dramatic as Regenokine, it lasted for a few months. I went from limping and barely being able to function to being able to play sports and go to class again. Unfortunately, like Regenokine, the healing effects of PRP were temporary. The treatment cost me around 10,000 US dollars.
Stem cell treatment was my last hope with regards to regenerative medicine. On May 28, I flew to the Cayman Islands for my stem cell treatment with a clinic affiliated with Centeno-Schultz Clinic. Like PRP and Regenokine, the stem cell treatment was autologous. I had three huge syringes of bone marrow aspirated from my hip bone. Mesenchymal stem cells were extracted from the bone marrow and cultivated to grow. Mesenchymal stem cells are multipotent stem cells that can transform into different types of cells depending on the situation. In my case, the stem cells were injected inside of my L5-S1 intervertebral disc with the hope that they would transform into disc tissue and help my lumbar spine heal.
The first few days after the operation, the pain was almost unbearable without oxycodone, a narcotic. It was nearly impossible to walk, bend forward, or even dress myself. The doctor informed me that I would see my pain flare up in the following four weeks, but in time, I would regain range of motion. I was also told that eventually my body is likely to be healed a hundred percent. The results are promising thus far. It has been almost three weeks since the treatment, and I have already gained back mobility and functionality. There is something changing in my back. I used to be in pain from morning to night, now after a good night of sleep, I usually wake up free from pain. In the morning, there is slight discomfort in my hip and lower back area, but no pain until I move too much or sit for too long. It takes four to six months to evaluate the full result, which seem hopeful. The stem cell treatment for my lower back and hip cost 29,000 US dollars.
Regenerative medicine does work amazingly well, but its drawback is in its exorbitant price and inaccessibility in Canada. I believe regenerative treatment is the future of medicine, and hope that the three treatments are made available in Canada as soon as possible. In total, I spent over 70,000 Canadian dollars just for my three treatments. No one should have to pay that much to live free of pain. Health is crucial to happiness, and it should never be the privilege to the only few who can afford expensive medical trips abroad.
An earlier version of this article stated that NY Spine Medicine is the only institute in the US that offers Regenokine. In fact, there are other institutes in the US that offer the treatment. The Daily regrets the error.
Sami Ellaia is a 3L student at the Faculty of Law. To reach him, please contact email@example.com.