Gordie Howe still fighting with stem-cell therapy

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — They may treat stroke with stem-cell therapy in the United States, eventually, but they do not do it now.

Leave it to Gordie Howe to step into the breach, to engage in his latest fight.

The great former Red Wings' health failing and his family, gathered around him, thinking he may have only a couple of month to live, the risks seemed far smaller than any potential for reward.

When fans and old acquaintances called, offering the therapy — a course of treatment currently reported in but one medical journal in the United States and another in the United Kingdom — the family caucused, listened to the consideration of one of Howe's sons, Murray, who is a doctor, and decided to go for it.

And from sharply diminished circumstances after a serious stroke and perhaps some small ones, last year, Howe recently walked with Murray for two hours in a shopping mall in Texas, according to Mark Howe, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and chief pro scout of the Red Wings.

Gordie Howe may even attend an annual tribute to him, in the town where he grew up, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in the first week of February.

"People out in California, a stem-cell company, contacted my brother. They knew he was a doctor," Mark Howe said. "These guys are big Gordie Howe fans. One guy had done some work with my mom and dad many moons ago, in Detroit, back in the early 80s.

"Murray, being a doctor, takes the lead on the medical stuff, for Dad. So, he did some research and talked to these people."

Stem cell therapy is in many respects, a burgeoning field, with research ongoing and hopes it may be offered as treatment, eventually, for a variety of afflictions. As treatment for stroke, however, stem cell therapy is available in some other countries, including some parts of Europe, Russia and Mexico.

But for the 795,000 strokes that occur annually in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, the medical community is only beginning to consider it.

"There have been some promising animal studies, but human studies are still very preliminary and very limited," said Dr. Eric Adelman, a neurologist, professor and director of the University of Michigan Stroke Program.

"In general, they are really looking at is this treatment safe. And once then once we determine if it is safe, then we can determine if it's actually effective in speeding functional recovery.

"While there's tremendous hope, I think at this point the science has not caught up with the hope. We still need some high quality clinical trials. I don't think we're where we can call this a standard of care or even an option for most people."

What some study of the safety of the therapy reveal is what the Howe's have found: In their experience, it is effective.

And, in weighing the available information, Howe said the family decided there was little to fear.

"None of that was scary," Howe said.

"The scary part was we figured we had nothing to lose, with Dad. He was in such dire straits.

"So, if something happened and it didn't work out and he passed, well, so be it.

"The way we looked at is, among the family, we thought that Dad, in the condition he was in and the way he was going, we thought he had maybe at most two months to live," Howe said.

"And, if we didn't do anything, it really wouldn't matter."

The results exceeded their expectations, he said.

"Going into it, from what Murray said, the hopes were that we could just improve his quality of life a little bit, and maybe it would make his remaining days have a lot more dignity and a little bit of substance to his life, and quality.

"It's actually been a bit more than that, and it's far better than what we had ever imagined.

"For that, we're truly grateful and thankful."

Howe said his father had lost about 25 pounds since his first, serious stroke and was beginning to lose the ability to swallow.

But he had gained 16 pounds, recently.

"His quality of life has vastly improved," Howe said.

"I know the man, too. There are a lot of people who are fighters, but this man might be the ultimate fighter. And through the whole process, since he's had his stroke, and with the spinal stenosis, we've aimed to give him a chance at a quality of life.

"And he's continued to battle and fight.

"But that was the really difficult thing for us, before this stem cell therapy, we started seeing some of the fight leaving Dad.

"And that's not like him.

"So, he's got some of his fight, he's got some of his nature back and the whole nine yards."

As for victims of stroke, Dr. Adelman said that, at least for now, the best treatment is getting medical attention for the victim as quickly as possible. And that means mastering the symptoms of stroke.

"We always want to tell people that treatment can help, if they get to the hospital early.

"Stroke warning symptoms are the sudden onset of numbness, tingling or weakness, particularly on one side of the body, difficulty of speaking or understanding, loss of vision, double-vision, problems walking, or a terrible headache without a notable cause.

"Those are reasons to call 911 and get medical attention, because early treatment can reduce the chance for disability."