Don Christensen will board a plane Thursday morning for a flight that he hopes will change his life. Christensen, of Webster, Wis., suffers from multiple sclerosis. He and two personal attendants will fly to Panama, where he is scheduled to receive a stem-cell transplant. The transplants have proven effective in reducing the symptoms associated with MS, according to the testimony of others who have received the treatments. The transplants are not available in the United States.
“I think it’d be cool if I could reach up and scratch an itch,” said Christensen, a quadriplegic. “We’ll give it a shot. Hopefully, it works. Whatever happens, it’s been a really neat ride.”
Don Christensen of Webster, Wis., demonstrates how he shoots his crossbow with a breath-activated trigger device. (News Tribune file photo)
Christensen, 50, is an avid outdoorsman who hunts and fishes from his wheelchair. He uses a breath-activated device to trigger his shotgun, rifle or crossbow. He has hunted deer, turkeys and bears. In February, friends and supporters gathered at a fundraiser in Spooner for Christensen, raising $27,800 for his transplant and associated travel. Donations have now topped $28,000, he said.
The transplant, to be done at the Stem Cell Institute in Panama City, Panama, will cost $21,200, Christensen said in a telephone interview Monday. Travel, lodging other other costs will total about $4,000.
“I’ve spent last couple weeks talking to people who have done stem cell transplants in Panama,” he said. “It’s amazing. There’s been some miracles happening. It definitely keeps hope alive.”
Christensen has been on his MS medicine for seven years. While it has kept his MS symptoms in check, the medicine has a serious potential side effect. The longer a person takes the medicine, the more likely it is that he or she will develop progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, or PML.
After a recent screening, he learned that his risk of PML had increased dramatically. PML is caused by a virus infection that affects the white matter in the brain and targets cells that make myelin — the material that insulates nerve cells.
PML has a 30 to 50 percent mortality rate within the first few months of diagnosis, but that depends on the severity of the underlying disease and treatment received, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. People who survive PML can be left with severe neurological disabilities.
Christensen researched the option of the stem-cell transplant and decided it was worth trying. He and two attendants, Jennifer Tripp of Spooner and Dawn Elliott of Trego, plan to be in Panama City for 10 days.
In some cases, Christensen said, those who receive the transplants must return for a second transplant. But nearly all those he knows of who have received the transplants have experienced some reduction in symptoms, Christensen said.
The transplants are not available in the United States because the procedure has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.