Her condition termed untreatable by several doctors back home in the United States, when 19-year-old Christie Roberts who suffers from the rare cerebellar ataxia attempted near-perfect strokes in the swimming pool last April following her initial stem cell therapy session at a Nerul hospital, her father let out a loud “woo hoo”. That was the first big and visible change in Christie’s physical ability.
A month later, Christie won a bronze medal in the 25 metres open freestyle swimming contest at the Special Olympics for Mississippi state. Cerebellar ataxia is a rare neurological disorder that affects the cerebellum and muscle movements in the body.
Its global incidence is not yet accurately estimated. Christie was diagnosed with the condition at the age of two, her family seeing the initial signs even when she crawled.
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At the age of six, her health turned for worse, leaving her wheelchair-bound, her speech indecipherable. “One year ago, she could not even feed herself,” remembers her father, Kevin Roberts (49).
Stem cell therapy was a ray of hope, but it remains a relatively new science in the United States too, owing to a long ban on stem cell research funding. The Roberts in fact visited several hospitals only to be turned down. “No one in the state would even try to treat her,” said Kevin.
Last year, having researched about possible treatment options in Asia, Kevin contacted the NeuroGen Brain and Spine Institute in Navi Mumbai, where Christie then underwent her first stem cell therapy session.
“Stem cells from her hip bone were injected in her spine. The cells released chemicals and improved her blood supply,” said Dr Alok Sharma, neurosurgeon and founder of the institute.
Probably the biggest motivation for the Roberts family to search so hard for treatment options was a swimming pool in her backyard, a gift to Christie from a charitable foundation when she was 10. Swimming was easier than walking, and the otherwise wheelchair-bound child would feel an equal with other kids in the neighbourhood.
“Earlier, kids used to play in our house but would eventually go off. She would be stuck alone as she could not walk by herself. When the swimming pool came, children started coming in. It gave her confidence,” says Kevin.
A month after the first trip to Navi Mumbai, Christie won the bronze at the Mississippi Special Olympics, her body movements responding well underwater.
She returned for her second session of stem cell therapy in September, 2014, and has now been in India for a month for her third and final stem cell therapy session. On her return, she will resume swimming practice for the upcoming Mississippi state-level swimming competition scheduled in May this year.
“During rehabilitation, we often suggest physiotherapy in water. Water provides uniform pressure on all body points and gives a better balance, one she did not get on land,” said rehabilitation expert Amruta Paranjape.
Slurring slightly as she speaks, Christie discusses how she misses “swimming and my dog TJ” the most. On Sunday, she will return to Mississippi to start her hourly practice of swimming along with her part-time job at a local restaurant.
“I do like computers too,” she says slowly, attempting to get up from the chair to head towards the washroom.
Her father jokes, “Earlier, she could not operate a mobile phone or talk properly. Now, I have to ask her to quit calling me again and again.” The family is upbeat. If Christie Roberts qualifies in the state-level competition, it’s the nationals next year.