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Gordie Howe progressing after stem-cell treatment

by Jon Lane

Hockey legend Gordie Howe is "doing fantastic" in his ongoing recovery from a stroke, his son Dr. Murray Howe told NHL Live on Monday.

Dr. Howe said his father has gained at least 20 pounds since having stem-cell treatment in Mexico on Dec. 8. Gordie Howe is rehabbing at his daughter Kathy's house in Lubbock Texas, where he helps with the household chores. Upon visiting, Howe's sons take turns playing hockey, throwing a football or kicking a soccer ball with their father.

"He's doing very, very well," said Dr. Howe, the director of sports medicine imaging of Toledo Hospital. "He has good days and bad days like anybody who's 86 [years old], but overall he's heading in the right direction really every day, a little bit better. He had his stem cell treatment Dec. 8 and really since that time he's just been doing fantastic.

"He loves to be busy. If you want to torture him just make him sit down and watch television. He is just about doing stuff. He's in great spirits. He has an excellent quality of life. He's doing all the things that he wants to do now other than fishing, only because we haven't taken him fishing since his treatment, but he's looking forward to doing that."

Gordie Howe is making a dramatic recovery from a stroke he had in late October that left him unable to walk and disoriented. Although he made progress in the two weeks following the stroke during which he was able to move a couple of steps with a walker and regain some strength back on his right side, his health declined to the point where he couldn't stand, walk or feed himself.

"He was losing weight because he wasn't able to sustain himself in terms of eating," Dr. Howe said. "He essentially got to the point where he was bedridden and it was just no quality of life there."

Gordie Howe was rushed to the hospital with what was believed to be another serious stroke Dec. 1, but was diagnosed with dehydration. After he was discharged Dec. 3, Howe was barely responsive and recommended for hospice care, which had his family thinking he had two or three weeks to live.

Shortly before Gordie Howe's bout with dehydration, his family was contacted by Dr. Maynard Howe (no relation), chief executive officer and vice chairman of Stemedica, a San Diego-based biopharmaceutical company that's done stem-cell research for more than 10 years. Dr. Maynard Howe believed Gordie Howe could benefit from treatment and that it was possible he could enroll in a stem-cell trial for a stroke.

Dr. Murray Howe concluded the treatment harbored no risk and potentially several benefits, so the family decided move forward. Stemedica, professing their love for Gordie Howe, offered to do the treatment free of charge.

"We were not thinking we were going to do anything for my father," Dr. Murray Howe said. "We just assumed he was just going to die and that was going to be it. I was beyond skeptical, really. As I started to read through the information I was absolutely blown away by some of the patients who had amazing results and the trials that were going on. I was not only amazed at the success that they seemed to have, but also the safety factor that they've been using adult stem cells for over 10 years with no adverse reaction. That's almost unheard of."

The challenge was getting Gordie Howe to San Diego after he was released from the hospital on Dec. 3. Dr. Howe could not arrange for a private jet in a short time frame, so Murray and brother Marty Howe had to place their father on a commercial airline and move him to a connecting flight, a process that took about 20 minutes.

"We called it mission impossible," Dr. Howe said. "He was just absolutely in dire, dire straits. Our biggest concern was that he would just die when he was in California or in Mexico of natural causes related to his stroke. He was that far gone."

Gordie Howe had the treatment Dec. 8 in Tijuana at a Mexican stem cell company called Novastem that's licensed the use of Stemedica's cells for clinical trials approved by the Mexican government. Neural stem cells were injected into the spinal canal on Day 1 and mesenchymal stem cells by intravenous infusion on Day 2, according to a release sent by the Howe family in mid-December.

"They said that we might see some changes in my father within 24 hours and I just didn't believe it," Dr. Howe said.

Eight hours later, Gordie Howe began talking. He then demanded to walk to the bathroom.

"I said 'I'll get the urinal because you can't walk' and he says, 'Well the [heck] I can't walk,'" Dr. Howe said. "We actually sat up and put his feet down on the side of bed and I was absolutely stunned. I'd never seen anything like it in 28 years of doing medicine.

"I helped him walk to the bathroom, but he held his own weight. He did that two other times that night and by the next morning he was even stronger on his feet and had better balance. That morning he got the IV and that just seemed to light him up. It was like he had an instant sun tan, but it wasn't like an allergic reaction or a rash. It was just more blood flow going through his skin or his body. He reminded me of a racehorse that was in the stall and waiting to get out of the gate. He was just ready to go. He didn't even want the wheelchair to go back to the hotel."

Upon returning to the hotel, Gordie Howe was making the bed and walking around the room. Before the treatment, Gordie was shown images by therapists and could name one out of 10 items. Four days after the treatment, he recognized eight of them.

"Because he hadn't walked for literally almost two months, he had very little strength," Dr. Howe said. "He'd walk about maybe 20 seconds and then he'd have to sit down. He'd only sit down for a few seconds and he'd be right back up again. Every day since then he just got a little stronger and a little better."

Gordie Howe played 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and led them to four Stanley Cup championships. He scored 801 goals and 1,850 points in 1,767 regular-season games covering 26 NHL seasons, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. He will be making a public appearance Friday at Kinsman Arena in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where the building will be renamed the Gordie Howe Kinsman Arena. Retired NHL legend Wayne Gretzky is serving as the keynote speaker and all of Howe's children will be in attendance.

"Mr. Hockey will be in Saskatoon as of Thursday afternoon," Dr. Howe said. "We're looking forward to reconnecting with Wayne. We're trying to raise some money for Alzheimer's research. It should be a great event.

"Even before my dad's stroke, we never thought he would make another appearance again. The fact that he will be there is incredible in of itself."


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