Klaas Bartelds, 28 years, Paraplegia due to water sports accident

Date of birth: 1978

Marital status: unmarried

Occupation: electrical engineer, IT technician

Paraplegia due to water sports accident

How it happened

It happened on a wonderful day in June 2002. A friend and I were having a great time water-skiing. One more trip and then we wanted to call it a day. I tried to get close to the shore because if I jumped off somewhere close to the beach I would not need to swim so far. But suddenly there was a huge bump, something hit me and I flew through the air. Head first I fell to the ground with a thud. The impact was so hard that I was flung back into the water. All this happened while I was totally conscious. I sensed that I could not move any more and I instantly knew I had fractured my vertebrae.

My friend immediately called the ambulance and the ambulance team arrived only six minutes after his call. When they tried to get me out of the water they put a board under my back to stabilise it and to avoid further damage. Unfortunately their attempts were in vain. So they called the fire department to send their boat but unfortunately the boat had engine failure. That is why it took so long for the firemen to get me out of the water. I was on my way to the hospital about 45 minutes after the accident. Even though I wore a thermo suit my body temperature was quite low at 32°C. The doctors at the intensive care unit slowly increased my body temperature, did CT and MRI scans, revealing the diagnosis: two fractured cervical vertebrae at C6and C7. But we still did not know the severity of the fracture.

I had to undergo a six-hour operation in which the doctors stabilised the fractured cervical vertebrae by inserting a rod. They had me hooked up to an artificial respirator for 24 hours. Unfortunately I got pneumonia and my body temperature shot up to 42°C. My lungs were full of mucus and I found it very hard to breathe. The doctors decided to remove the excess mucus, but then I lost consciousness and my heart stopped. I regained consciousness pretty quickly and breathing was easier but my lungs were still full of mucus. The doctors injected me with a dye to help them identify the exact position of the mucus. Both lower lobes of my lungs were congested. When they removed the mucus this time I thought I was going to suffocate. After approximately 15 minutes it was all over and I was able to breathe normally at last. From that moment on things started to get better. After ten days I was transferred from the intensive care unit to an ordinary ward.

The consequence

I was completely paralysed bellow cervical vertebra C6 - meaning I was semi-paraplegic. I was only capable of lifting my arms a tiny bit. Did I have any sensation in my body? Not at all! I could not even distinguish between warm and cold. And what was even harder for me was that I felt like a baby, incapable of controlling my bowel and or bladder. How was I supposed to go on?

After having been in hospital for three months I started intensive rehabilitation treatment for seven months. My family and my friends were of tremendous support to me. Their never-ending encouragement made me start rigorous exercising. I also learned how to use the wheelchair and was therefore mobile enough to meet with fellow patients. When talking to and seeing them I realized that fate had struck them a cruel blow and that I was the lucky one. Counting my blessing, I continued exercising even harder.

Surprising development

Three months after the accident I suddenly felt the big toe on my left foot. I was even able to move it! It still felt strange because I could not figure how the movement happened. It was a blur. However, I was obviously not completely paralysed. I had to do a special training to strengthen my body functions. And slowly I regained some control over my left leg. Two more months of hard training gave me some control the whole of the left side of my body. This felt so great! Finally, I was capable of standing on my own two feet. Although I still depended on the help of a walking frame. I trained like a maniac until I was told that rehab would not get me any further.

I moved into a specially adapted apartment in February 2003 - seven months after the accident. I continued looking for further training programmes and rehabilitation activities. Then, in July I finally started learning to walk again. Three times a week I trained as hard as I could. At the beginning I made good progress but in September any improvement came to a halt with no further advances likely. I should have been satisfied with the progress I had already made as I had no problem with the wheelchair and with the help of the "Rollator Walker", a three or four legged crutch, I was even capable of walking a few small steps. Even though moving around in the apartment was still hard, being able to stand eased the difficulties I faced every day. I could also get into my car and then pull my wheelchair into it without needing anybody to help. Still, the cloudy and foggy feeling in my body remained.

No further improvements in sight? Maybe at least some slight ones?

In spite of the fact that I had no choice, I just could not accept that I had to spend the rest of my life in the wheel chair. Gone were the days of long walks with my dog Tygo. I also had to find a new job. Maintenance and repair works on ships was definitely not feasible from a wheelchair. I decided to become self-employed and I started repairing computers and other kinds of technical devices. For distraction and to stay fit I continued training at the rehabilitation centre, although I was constantly looking out for new treatment options.

It was in 2005 while I was surfing the Internet and visited www.dwarslaesie.nl that I found out about stem cell treatment for paraplegics and about the provider Cells4health. Although I already knew that stem cell research was underway in the U.S. and in Asia, I did not know that treatment was already available in Europe. Therefore I asked the neurologist at the rehabilitation centre. He recommended visiting www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ a website outlining the latest medical developments. There I found information on stem cell treatment but unfortunately I could not find anything specific for spinal cord injury patients. So I decided to get in contact with Cells4health. I had an MRI scan and neurological tests. A cyst was pressing on my spinal cord explaining the problems with my body functions. The tests also revealed that the fractured vertebrae had healed, but the vertebral canal had also narrowed.

After the tests had been completed I sent all data to Cells4healths, asking for further information to determine whether I was eligible for the treatment. Their answer was positive and I was indeed eligible for treatment. They explained every single step of the treatment and gave me a detailed description of their experiences with other spinal cord injury patients. Despite their comprehensive information I still had questions. Once all my queries had been answered I decided to undergo stem cell treatment.

First stem cell treatment in August 2005

The treatment began in August. Bone marrow was extracted from my hipbone under local anaesthetic. In September they told me that the sample contained a sufficient number of stem cells. Then, I was put on a waiting list until November when I was to undergo the re-injection. But first I had to decide whether the cells should be re-injected directly into the tissue surrounding the fractured vertebrae or if they should perform a neuronavigation-guided procedure and re-inject the cells near to the fractured vertebrae. I decided to opt for the first option, which meant surgery and re-injection of the cells directly to the fractured vertebrae.

When I woke up from the anaesthetic I felt terrible pain. Therefore, I was given morphine to control it. After a while I started to see whether there had been any change in my flexibility but there was none. Initially the post-op examinations took place every hour. On the second day they removed the neck brace that had been put on to secure my cervical vertebrae in the normal position. This meant lying in bed became more comfortable and I was not examined on an hourly basis any longer, but every two hours. On day three after the operation I was able to sit in my wheelchair for 45 minutes, although I still had problems holding my head up when not wearing my neck brace. Post-op examinations continued at two hourly-intervals. The recovery process went well and the doctors discharged me the following day.

The result

At first I could not sense anything except some odd feeling of restlessness in my body. The cloudy and foggy feeling inside my body disappeared during the next four to five months, especially from my abdomen and legs. For the first time I could sense WHERE the movement in my big toe originated and I started to get more and more confident about being able to walk again one day if I only had the strength. Therefore, I started to increase my weight training and my walking exercises on the treadmill. Missing body functions did not return but the existing ones became much stronger. Finally, I started to sense warm and cold. Never have I enjoyed the chilly winter temperatures so much! And just think about the warm tiles in shower under my naked feet! I knew for certain that I would try a second treatment.

Second stem cell treatment in May 2006

This time the stem cells were re-injected by lumbar puncture close to the damaged vertebrae.

The result

This time I immediately found my bowel and bladder function had improved and I was able to resume a fulfilling personal life. All this highly motivated me to continue exercising. Progress went well for about two months until I could lift both my legs off the ground. The spasms reduced significantly and keeping my balance became a lot easier. But no matter how much I continued to exercise I still faced limitations. This made me sad and depressed and weakened my determination. Then I would snap out of the despondency and once again felt proud of all I could do. Today I accept my handicap and I no longer focus so much on my body. I enjoy living an independent life. After having faced up to the consequences of the accident, I am now looking for new challenges to occupy my time. As my well-being depends on support and encouragement I am going to give up my business and start applying for jobs that will enable me to work together with other people.

My advice

Never ever give up! Try everything!

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