Family Collage

Family Collage
Lots of Love in this Bunch!
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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Stem Cell Pioneers

Since the beginning of documenting TJ's story in November '10, I have prayed for the day when I could sit in a room with stem cell pioneer Dr. Hans Keirstead and Roman Reed of Roman's Law and ask questions about stem cell therapy and the science behind Geron's clinical trial . If only I could have an hour to speak with these men, I would say to myself while sitting at my computer until midnight, searching the public domain for any overlooked videos or articles mentioning their names.

Because I am abundantly optimistic and tenacious in spirit when it comes to something I feel passionate about, I convinced myself that everything would fall into place and that somehow, someway, TJ and I would have the opportunity to speak with Hans and Roman.

With the diligent help of our literary agent Mac Mackie, our prayers were answered, and TJ and I received an email from a major advocacy group, offering to put us in direct contact with anyone in the stem cell community that we desired to speak with. Of course we didn't hesitate one minute in responding to this generous offer. We went for it, and fast!

Fast forward two weeks later, I was heading home from work and just a few blocks from Courtney's preschool in Chatom - the one in which TJ's mother Anita is the director - I received a text stating that Hans Keirstead had agreed to participate in an interview if we were interested. It's almost hilarious looking back on it now at how I wheeled my Suburban into the daycare parking lot and ran inside to tell Anita the exciting news. It was moments like this, seeing the smile on her face, that fueled my efforts and made me work even harder on The Human Candidate.

And so the following week, with my itinerary folder in one hand and resource books tucked away in my carry-on bag, I departed Mobile Regional Airport en route to Santa Ana, California to meet and interview Dr. Hans Keirstead and Roman Reed. Of course this was a golden nugget opportunity for the research portion of TJ's story, but there was also a yearning to connect these amazing men to TJ. As the plane reached altitude above the clouds, and my nerves settled to their normal state, I looked out my window at the beautiful sunset and thanked God for allowing things to fall into place for TJ and his story.

I believe that pictures often times tell a story better than the written word, so please enjoy the images below that were taken during my trip to Irvine and Valencia, California!

I will always remember this visit with Hans Keirstead at the Sue and Bill Gross Research Center at University of California in Irvine. Hans is the brilliant neurobiologist who invented the protocol in which paralyzed rats were injected with human embryonic stem cells and later regained sensory and motor function at the site of injury level. His invention was patented and sold to Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, California for use in human clinical trials. TJ Atchison is the first spinal cord injury patient enrolled in this federally regulated clinical trial.

It was such an honor to meet and interview this incredible scientist, husband, father, advocate, and person of our time! Hans provided a tour of the research lab and took time to explain the science behind his invention. He exceeded all my expectations and made me feel most comfortable during my visit. For over two hours, Hans translated this complex science and terminology into simple, understandable information that will be conveyed in TJ's book.

Because TJ couldn't make the trip, he wanted to send a SPECIAL gift to Hans Keirstead's son Conner. As you can tell from his cheerful smile, the Crimson Tide is one of Han's favorite teams as well!

This moment, Hans Keirstead wearing TJ's autographed shirt, was priceless!!! Definitely worth making the trip to UC-Irvine.

The second day of my visit out West, I rented a car and travelled two hours north of Irvine to Magic Mountain Parkway, in Valencia, California. Roman Reed and I decided it would be fun and adventurous to meet at the home of Six Flags.

This amazing park made me miss my little ones back home even more.

Paralyzed after a football accident in 1994, Roman Reed has become a leading advocate on Capitol Hill for stem cell research. He and his father Don have worked tirelessly to have the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act passed in California. As a result, more than $12.5 million in state funds has been awarded to scientists conducting research in spinal cord regeneration. In the photo above, Roman was thrilled to receive his autographed T'shirt from TJ. It was such an honor to connect these amazing men.

Roman is such a nice guy with a HUGE personality and a heart the size of Texas!!!

So cool to introduce him via phone to TJ. These two hit it off immediately! Of course football, Bama beating Arkansas, was the topic of conversation! :-)

On the eve of Christopher Reeve's posthumous 59th birthday, and the one-year anniversary of TJ's automobile accident, Roman and I looked over our shoulders and noticed this beautiful tower - Superman! Can't think of a better way to end an amazing weekend with two extraordinary men.