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The Right Decision

June 21, 2011

Before consenting to a medical procedure, a patient usually asks a key set of questions. What is the surgeon’s success rate in performing the procedure? What are the risks involved? What are the typical post-op results?

Each of these questions weighed heavily on my mind the morning of October 4, 2010, the day I confronted the idea of becoming the first human candidate for embryonic-stem-cell therapy. Yet after reading over the 31 pages of a first-ever clinical protocol and investigator’s brochure, I knew these questions could never be answered.

As I stared down at the pages, it was hard to grasp that just 10 days after being involved in a car accident—one that left me paralyzed from the chest down—I was now being faced with the biggest decision of my life.

I was a student at the University of South Alabama Nursing School, so I understood there were significant risks to being the first patient enrolled in any clinical trial. But nothing could prepare me for being the first person with a spinal-cord injury to be injected with more than two million cells grown in a laboratory from human embryonic stem cells. I kept thinking about a lecture on the promise of regenerative medicine I had attended only two weeks before the accident. It put in perspective what my participation could mean to millions of other disabled people.

After discussing the pros and cons of the procedure with my mother and maternal grandfather, I realized that I had a great responsibility to fulfill. I’d be the one to help doctors and researchers learn how these cells actually work in humans. I’d be able to encourage continued research in this controversial field from the perspective of someone who had been through the type of injury the researchers hope to treat.

Less than 30 minutes after being informed of the risks involved in the trial, I signed my name to the consent forms and initialed each page. Even under the pressure of the situation, I knew I was making the right decision. There were no false expectations about the infallibility of science, but I was doing this with the faith that I’d walk again one day. My faith carried me through it all.

Nearly eight months after being injected, I remain confident in my decision. However, I do admit that with each passing day, the fear of tumors developing at the injection site troubles me more. I find peace in the fact that even if this were to occur, I’d be helping researchers learn something about the procedure and what to avoid next time. Even if I became sick, I would still be contributing to the health of someone else, somewhere down the line.

Read the Feature Article: Stem-Cell Gamble

T. J. Atchison is collaborating with Tory Minus, the editor of Alabama Living, on a book about his experience.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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