Rare stem cell treatment provides hope for paralyzed hockey player, family
A junior league hockey player who suffered a severe spinal cord injury last month in a game at the Sears Centre Arena is receiving a rare adult stem cell treatment that doctors hope will improve his prognosis.
Matt Olson, a 20-year-old defenseman with the Chicago Cougars, was racing for the puck behind the net during the Cougars' Feb. 21 game at the Hoffman Estates arena when his skate blade caught an edge in the ice. What resulted was a "devastating injury" that immediately rendered him a quadriplegic, according to Dr. John Ruge, a neurosurgeon who performed surgery on Olson after he was rushed to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
Ruge, joined by Olson's parents at a news conference Tuesday, said Matt has received a novel adult-derived stem cell treatment that could reduce or stop his spinal cord injury from getting worse.
It's the first time in the nation such a treatment has been used for someone with a spinal cord injury, though the treatment has proved to be effective in stroke patients, Ruge said.
Olson was a perfect candidate for the stem cell therapy, made available to him "through the hockey community" that has rallied around him since his injury, Ruge said.
"It's going to be day-to-day," Ruge said. "He's going to have a long recovery process that's going to require a lot of resources."
Olson's parents, Sue and Doug, have been at their son's bedside since arriving here from their home in Isanti, Minnesota, just north of the Twin Cities. On Tuesday, they thanked those here and back home for their support, both emotional and financial, which has included fundraising drives to defray costly medical treatment.
They said they've quickly learned the positive impact their son had in the suburbs since he arrived to play with the Cougars in August. Some of his volunteer work has included making meals for Ronald McDonald House, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, visiting schools and nursing homes, and helping at practices for young hockey players at the Hoffman Estates Park District.
Olson was living with a host family in Wauconda, where neighborhood kids would often ask if he could come out to play.
"We're amazed everyday at the stories that people share with us about how Matt touched their lives," Sue Olson said. "We knew Matt was a good kid, but we didn't fully understand or comprehend the extent to which he's touched the lives of others. So hearing those stories also is a sense of comfort to us."
When Matt Olson arrived at the emergency room Feb. 21, doctors initially thought his spinal cord was completely severed, but soon realized it was only severely pinched, Ruge said. After a seven-hour emergency operation, a team of surgeons was able to decompress his spinal cord and bring it back into alignment.
Luckily, Olson didn't have any head injuries, and he's been able to communicate with facial expressions. He can't move his arms or legs, but can shrug his shoulders. He's now going through physical therapy.
"Matt was coming close to realizing his dream of playing college hockey while he was here in Chicago, but all of that changed," said Sue Olson, fighting back tears. "But he was doing what he loved. He was playing hockey and it was just simply an accident that happened to him."
"He has a very long journey ahead of him, but we know Matt -- the person that he is -- and that he will face these challenges with the same work ethic and tenacity that made him a great hockey player."
A GoFundMe account has been established online to accept donations. As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly $100,000 had been raised.