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Policeman seeks stem cell transplant
By DEANNA BOYD
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
SPECIAL TO THE STAR-TELEGRAM/RICHARD W. RODRIGUEZ
Fort Worth police Sgt. Preston Walker, 37, found out he has multiple sclerosis six years ago and wants a stem cell transplant not available in the U.S. FORT WORTH -- Police Sgt. Preston Walker first noticed the peculiarities in 1999.
He suddenly found himself battling constant fatigue. Ten hours of sleep at night did nothing to alleviate his exhaustion. His walk became somewhat unsteady. He found himself struggling to articulate his thoughts.
His longtime doctor theorized that it was "young-timers disease." Walker was 29.
"He said, 'You know what, Preston, you're burning the candle at both ends,'" Walker said. "He knew I was going to college. He knew I had a family. He said: 'You're working full time; you're working part-time jobs. There's not many people who can keep up that pace. Just slow down. I think you'll be fine.'
"Well, I did slow down but it didn't help."
In 2001, doctors brought a new diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a disorder that affects the central nervous system.
Though his MS was caught early and is in remission, Walker said, "the uncertainty of not knowing when this will hop out of remission and potentially affect other motor skills is constantly on our minds."
So the 19-year Fort Worth Police Department veteran has decided to travel to China to undergo an experimental but promising treatment that uses umbilical cord stem cells, unspecialized cells that can develop into specialized cells, to treat various medical disorders.
For Walker, who has already been participating in studies through the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, the transplant's cost of almost $20,000 and the thousands of dollars in travel and living expenses for his and his wife's four- to six-week stay in China, seems overwhelming but necessary.
"Even before becoming an officer, I don't know that I've ever been really passive," said Walker, 37. "It's like when you start talking to some victims in a lot of these crimes. A lot of people think, 'That's happened and there's nothing I can do about it.'
"My attitude is this is an obstacle I overcome or it overcomes me, which is not an option."
After learning of his diagnosis, Walker began doing research on the Internet.
"One site I went to said that you could live a pretty normal life but expect five years off of your life span or, within 15 years, you could be in a wheelchair," Walker said. "I thought, 'Oh God. Where's the good news in that?' I didn't see it at all."
But while exploring a link to an MS discussion group, Walker stumbled upon the stem cell treatment program in China.
He read the blogs on the program's Web site. He contacted some of the program's former MS participants, such as Mikey Riley of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Betty Helm of Baton Rouge, La.
Riley, 20, traveled to China in May for umbilical stem cell treatment. Riley said that since then, his health has not deteriorated.
"I do consider that progress for me. I had this treatment done in hopes I could slow or stop the progression of the disease for X amount of time," Riley said. "In my eyes, so far that has been accomplished."
Helm, 57, was diagnosed with MS in 2000. She said that when she traveled to China in May, she was experiencing numbness on the right side of her body, severe double vision and a lack of balance and stamina.
"We were so enthused when we were there," Helm said. "We saw miracles happening."
"After my first stem cell treatment, my double vision was gone and I could feel the right side of my face and the right side of my body," Helm said. "It was almost immediate for me. I just kept feeling better and better."
Helm was so pleased with the treatment that she formed Stem Cells for Hope, a nonprofit organization aimed at educating people about stem cell treatment and helping raise funds for those seeking it.
"It totally changed my life," Helm said. "I always thought that I was a shell of my former person. Now I feel like I got my life back and I'm a whole person again."
Walker said he hopes to make the trip in the spring.
"There aren't any guarantees and I understand that, but it's just the hope," Walker said.
Walker's wife, Andrea, said that while she was initially wary of her husband's decision to travel to China for the treatment, the couple's research on the program and talking to other patients has set her mind at ease.
Andrea Walker recalled how her husband's neurologist once commented soon after Walker's diagnosis that he might be a good candidate for a stem cell transplant when such treatment became more accessible in the United States.
"That's been a long time now and they still don't seem any closer to it." Andrea Walker said.
While in China, Walker will undergo three stem cell transplants and one bone marrow transplant.
Walker said that not seeing his children, Courtney, 11, and Ryan, 8, for more than a month will be difficult, but he hopes that the treatment will give him more time and activities with them in the future.
"My biggest fear is not being able to participate with my family," Walker said.
Other worries include having to retire early from the Police Department or becoming a financial burden on his family.
Andrea Walker said she and her husband are hopeful that the treatment in China might save them medication costs in the future.
To help Walker with his treatment in China, several officers and friends are holding fundraisers.
Walker said that even if he cannot raise enough money, he's willing to sell his pickup and take out a larger home equity loan to cover it. He said a recent visit with a MS patient who is now bedridden in a nursing facility persuaded him to push forward.
"Seeing the potential of what could happen to me, it just really kind of renewed my drive," Walker said. "I do have some personal benefits to achieve from this, but it's also an instance of becoming another successful statistic for stem cell transplant. Hopefully, if it's ever considered in the U.S., maybe I'll be one those success numbers."
HOW TO HELP
Several fundraisers are being held to help raise money for Sgt. Preston Walker's stem cell transplant:
Fort Worth police will take on Dallas police in the Battle of the Blades at 6:45 p.m. Sunday at the Nytex Sports Centre, 8851 Ice House Drive in North Richland Hills, after the Fort Worth Brahmas hockey game. Tickets are $5 for the benefit hockey game. The event will include a raffle, bounce house for the kids, a live band and T-shirt sales. Barron Wortham, former Cowboys linebacker, and Mark McLemore, former Rangers infielder, will be there to sign autographs.
Fort Worth officers are taking a 100-kilometer bike ride Nov. 9 and are asking for donations of 25 cents a kilometer to benefit Walker. The ride will begin around 9 a.m. at Long Avenue and Angle Avenue, then proceed west toward Benbrook before ending at the Fort Worth Police Academy. Those interested in making a donation are asked to call officer Eddy Perez at 817-925-8113.
The Horseman Club and KFWR/95.9 FM "The Ranch" are hosting a benefit and silent auction to benefit Walker on Nov. 10 at the Horseman Club, 4750 Bryant Irvin Road. Cover charge is $3 and the auction begins at 9 p.m.
The Preston Walker Benefit Bowling Tournament will be held from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Don Carter Bowling Lanes, 6601 Oakmont Blvd. in Fort Worth. Five-person bowling teams will compete in three games for medals. Cost is $25 per person. To sign up or for more information, contact Sgt. David Wilson at 817-944-0943.
Tax-deductible donations can also be made to Walker though the National Transplant Assistance Fund at http://www.transplantfund.org. Type "Walker" in the "Find a Patient Website" portion of the Web site and follow the directions.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655
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