‘I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m hopeful’

Paralyzed last year in a diving accident, Eagan man finds hope in stem cell surgery overseas

When Jay Magee became paralyzed after a diving accident last year, all he wanted was to be able to walk again.

These days, he’s just hoping to just get back the full use of his hands.

“It’s taken me a year and a half, and I can move my arms and feed myself and brush my teeth, but I can’t do a whole lot more than that,” he said. “It can be really frustrating.”

Now Magee has a reason to hope.

He has been approved for a new type of surgery in Portugal that has shown promise in helping paralyzed patients regain some sensation and muscle control.

The surgery transplants stem cells from a patient’s own olfactory tissue, found in the nasal cavity, into the spine.

“Basically, those cells just constantly regenerate,” Magee said.

The surgery is performed by Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, who has performed the operation on about 100 patients so far. He accepts only two patients from the U.S. each month.

“I have just a whirlwind of emotions: I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m hopeful, but yet I’m skeptical,” Magee said. “In a sense it feels like the last hope, so I’m hoping for the best.”

Magee and his wife, Jill Kraus, were married less than four months when, while on a boating trip on the St. Croix last summer, Magee dove into the water without realizing how shallow it was. He hit his head on the bottom of the river, damaging his spinal cord and breaking the fifth and sixth Vertebrae in his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

Magee was at the Courage Center in Golden Valley for just under a year, where he managed to regain slight movement in his arms through Physical Therapy.

It has not been easy. For Magee, a once self-sufficient man, it has meant learning to be dependent upon others. For Kraus, it has meant having someone be completely dependent upon her.

Both say it’s been hard to always have to ask for help, when they were once the ones helping others.

They have found encouragement talking with others who have had the surgery, including one man with a spinal cord injury who is now walking unassisted with a walker 17 months after surgery.

Not everybody has seen such positive outcomes. Some have seen little to no improvement at all, though Magee said it can take up to seven years to see results.

“Everybody that’s had the surgery that we’ve talked to, even the guy who hasn’t gotten any function back, they’re still so positive and happy about it,” Kraus said.

“They’re just glad that there is a chance,” Magee said. “If there’s some hope that you can have the surgery and get something more back, even if it’s just one hand or both hands, that’s what we all live for. Hope.”

After the surgery, Jay will spend at least six months at a rehab center in Michigan doing intensive physical therapy.

The surgery comes with a hefty price tag: $100,000.

Magee is unable to work, and while Kraus works full time, the couple has had significant medical bills, as well as the costs of remodeling their home to accommodate Magee. They are hoping to raise the money for the surgery through fundraisers and donations before the surgery date, Jan. 13.

“People have been so generous and offering to help when Jay was in the hospital, and now we need to call in everybody that’s offered, because we need help,” Kraus said. “If we can get 100 people to send $1,000 each, that’s it right there.”

“Every dollar helps,” Jay said.

Although his surgery does not use controversial embryonic stem cells, the couple, who said they lean conservative, are frustrated by the limits put on stem cell research in this country.

“When Bush put the kibosh on stem cell research in the U.S., it’s disheartening because we’re supposed to be the greatest country in the world,” Magee said. “I still think it is, but to have somebody with all the power make a decision like that, it’s frustrating.”

Magee said he himself never put much thought into the issue before his accident.

“And you don’t until it happens to you or someone you care about,” he said.

“It’s not a political thing for me,” Kraus said. “Right now, I don’t care where we have to go, I’m just thankful somebody’s doing something.”

Although there have been many hard days, both Magee and Kraus said they make a concerted effort to stay positive.

“We just try to remind ourselves that we’re so lucky in so many ways,” Kraus said. “You almost feel guilty complaining, because it could be worse. It really could.”

For more information, visit Jay’s Caring Bridge Web site at www.caringbridge.com, click on “Visit” and type in jaymagee. Donations can be made out to Jay’s medical trust account, “Justin J. Kraus Trustee,” and sent to Justin Kraus, 2710 Orchid Drive N.E., Sauk Rapids, MN 56379. One hundred percent of donations will go toward Jay’s surgery.

by Erin Johnson
Thisweek Newspapers

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