Neal Rubin: Double-checking the glowing accounts of Gordie Howe’s stroke treatment
Correction: This column has been updated to remove an incorrect statement that Stemedica, a San Diego, California-based biopharmaceutical company, gave lawyer Jim Gass stem cell treatment in Mexico.
Bill Van Horn’s mother has had mini-strokes. A lot of mini-strokes. “Maybe hundreds,” he says, across the last decade or so.
Gordie Howe had a stroke, too. A serious one, in October 2014.
Then, unlike Barbara Van Horn, he got better.
When Mr. Hockey died June 10, there were several constants to the widespread coverage of his passing.
First, he was a terrific hockey player. Undeniable. Second, he was nice to people even when no one was looking. Also undeniable; there were more stories about uplifting encounters with Howe than there were goals in his 32-year career.
Third, the experimental stem cell injections he received in Mexico after his stroke sparked a medical miracle.
If that wasn’t stated outright, it was at least implied — to the consternation of doctors and researchers, who say there’s still a lot of overtime to be played before Howe’s treatment can earn an ovation.
“Isolated success stories are very misleading,” says Leonard Fleck, a professor in Michigan State’s Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, “especially when the clinic providing this therapy provides no actual (or) testable results.”
And: “It’s a bit of a stretch,” says physician Sandra Narayanan, who directs the neuroendovascular program at Beamont Hospital Dearborn, “to assume stem cells will prompt this universal revival in patients.”
Pending further review, there’s even a healthy amount of reluctance to give his spinal injections credit for Howe’s rebound.
But that’s what Bill Van Horn of West Bloomfield did at the time, and what others surely did when Howe died at 88, a year and a half after his trip to Tijuana.
“Talk about being excited,” says Van Horn, 64, who has been his mother’s full-time caregiver for six years. “I thought, ‘If Gordie can have this remarkable recovery, maybe mom can, too.’ ”
Money first, then medical
Van Horn called Stemedica, the San Diego-based stem cell manufacturer, and asked to be included in its clinical trial.
The problem was — and continues to be — that there hasn’t been one.
The only evidence of success is anecdotal, and the only anecdote being heard until this week was Howe’s.
If you’re a physician, an academic or the FDA, that’s interesting. But it’s not enough.
Stemedica and the Howe family, which has invested in the company, announced in May that a free three-year trial will be conducted at ProMedica Toledo Hospital in Ohio.
Barbara Van Horn, whose numerous medical problems include dementia, could conceivably be a candidate. But when her son called a Mexico facility, the principal qualification for treatment was $32,000 that he didn’t have.
He considered crowd-funding, but decided he was leery of taking a frail and confused patient to Mexico.
Beyond that, he says, “It dawned on me, ‘Oh, right. My mother’s not Gordie Howe.’ ”
Cure, or catastrophe
Nor is Jim Gass, a 66-year-old lawyer from San Diego who was featured in Wednesday’s New York Times.
Hoping to accelerate his recovery from a stroke, Gass spent nearly $300,000, including travel, for stem cell treatments in China, Argentina and Mexico.
Now he’s almost entirely paralyzed from a horrendous spinal tumor.
Referencing a study at the University of Miami involving stem cells dispatched via the leg to the carotid artery, Beaumont’s Narayanan says it’s “exciting to know this kind of technology could be deliverable via non-invasive procedures to stroke patients.”
But that’s very different from a spinal tap, and a study is very different from one hockey legend’s impressive rebound.
“There’s potential for real harm,” says Michael Chopp, director of the Neuroscience Institute for Henry Ford Health System. “What can cure you can also kill you.”
No one explained that to Bill Van Horn, who says he felt a bit guilty last year that he couldn’t take his mother to Tijuana.
Now he can just feel smart.