The Tower Journal

Robert Hargreaves

Stem Cells

           I volunteered to be a guinea pig in a heart stem cell study, referred by my new heart doctor after a heart attack a year ago last December.
          What a fright that was! I woke in the middle of the night to crushing pain in my chest. I couldn’t even sit up. Fortunately, my phone was right there and I called 911. They rushed me to the hospital, but the hospital was full. They put me on a gurney in the hall for several hours before they could get to me. The hall was lined with other patients waiting to get in. When my turn finally came, they sent me in for X-rays and further tests before they started treatment.
          When I woke the next afternoon, they informed me that both coronary arteries were plugged up and my heart wasn’t getting blood. They did the standard “ream and clean” with a balloon catheter and installed wire-mesh stents to keep the arteries open. The pain was gone, but I wasn’t feeling much better. I still couldn’t get out of bed. I rapidly improved and was released two days later. It took a month before I could walk around comfortably, and I still couldn’t lift more than ten pounds.
          I had read that stents frequently plugged up again. The opportunity for stem cells looked like just what I needed. I was already familiar with stem cells. As a veterinarian, I knew that stem cells were used to treat arthritis in dogs. The procedure can be conducted in the veterinarian’s office using stem cells extracted from the dog’s fat.
          The heart stem cell study was proposing to use stem cells to replace the damaged muscle of the heart. They had already conducted a study in dogs, and were proposing two studies in people: the first to establish safety and the second for efficacy. I didn’t consider safety much of an issue. The study didn’t use embryonic stem cells. Instead, they used cells extracted from adult heart muscle.
          Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles sent me the five-page proposal and two pages to sign, agreeing to participate. Then they told me I would have to go through two full days of testing, one week apart, before I could participate in the study. X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests, some I had never heard of. They assigned two nurses to accompany and direct me around the huge hospital complex. It was easy to get lost. The ten-story buildings covered two city blocks. I never would have made it without the nurses and my daughter, who accompanied me. I was instructed to bring a driver because the tests would incapacitate me. But I got separated from my daughter, and couldn’t get her on my cell phone. The walls were lined with lead, to protect from X-rays, and blocked the cell phone. I finally stepped outside and contacted my daughter again.
          After all that, they called and said I was accepted. Could I be there Tuesday at 11 a.m.? I got there early. They thawed out the stem cells, put me under anesthesia, and began the procedure. When they finished and I woke up, they told me they weren’t able to inject the stem cells after all. My arteries were clogged up again. They did the ream and clean again, but their protocol said the stem cells couldn’t be used if the coronary arteries were blocked. Even after you unblocked them? Yes, even then. That’s what our sponsors say, and they pay the bills. Sorry, we might still get you in later.
          I forgot that guinea pigs were disposable.

Copyright © 2014 Robert Hargreaves

Robert HargreavesRobert Hargreaves is a retired poultry veterinarian, currently writing about his adventures with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

His book, Mr. Bob the Chicken Engineer, has been published by Abbot Press. It's about helping the Vietnamese raise chickens during the war and later. An excerpt from the book has appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly. His work has also appeared in Existere, Harpur Palate, Knee-Jerk, and Wild Violet.

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014