Rare stem cell treatment provides hope for paralyzed hockey player, family

 
 
Updated 3/8/2016 3:52 PM
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  • Doug Olson, joined by his wife Sue and Dr. John Ruge, talks about his son Matt, who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury last month while playing for the Chicago Cougars hockey team.

      Doug Olson, joined by his wife Sue and Dr. John Ruge, talks about his son Matt, who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury last month while playing for the Chicago Cougars hockey team. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Chicago Cougars hockey player Matt Olson, who suffered a several spinal cord injury during a game Feb. 21 at the Sears Centre Arena, underwent a rare stem cell treatment to help his condition.

    Chicago Cougars hockey player Matt Olson, who suffered a several spinal cord injury during a game Feb. 21 at the Sears Centre Arena, underwent a rare stem cell treatment to help his condition. Courtesy of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital

  • Matt Olson, 20, played for the Chicago Cougars minor league hockey team in Hoffman Estates. He was severely injured during a game Feb. 21.

    Matt Olson, 20, played for the Chicago Cougars minor league hockey team in Hoffman Estates. He was severely injured during a game Feb. 21. Courtesy of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital

  • Sue Olson, mother of hockey player Matt Olson, said her son is prepared for the challenges he will face as he recovers from a severe spinal cord injury that has left him a quadriplegic. Doctors are hoping that a rare stem cell treatment will improve his long-term prognosis.

      Sue Olson, mother of hockey player Matt Olson, said her son is prepared for the challenges he will face as he recovers from a severe spinal cord injury that has left him a quadriplegic. Doctors are hoping that a rare stem cell treatment will improve his long-term prognosis. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Dr. John Ruge, a neurosurgeon at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, said he's hopeful an adult stem cell treatment will help the prognosis of injured hockey player Matt Olson.

      Dr. John Ruge, a neurosurgeon at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, said he's hopeful an adult stem cell treatment will help the prognosis of injured hockey player Matt Olson. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Doug Olson wears an "Olson Strong" wristband in honor of his son Matt, who was severely injured during a Chicago Cougars hockey game Feb. 21 at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.

      Doug Olson wears an "Olson Strong" wristband in honor of his son Matt, who was severely injured during a Chicago Cougars hockey game Feb. 21 at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Diane Eckhouse, a nurse at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, embraces Matt Olson's dad Doug, as mom Sue looks on.

      Diane Eckhouse, a nurse at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, embraces Matt Olson's dad Doug, as mom Sue looks on. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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.

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