Two years ago, Vlada Kravchenko was told she would never walk again. But after two sessions of stem cell treatment, her nerves are regenerating rapidly and, with a little help, she can already stand up and take small steps.
“It’s very exciting. I feel like running. But I need a lot of training and the doctors told me to take it slowly because I could hurt myself,” the former gymnast and aspiring model adds.
Ms Kravchenko, now 19, suffered a spinal cord injury after a lighting structure fell on her during a party in September 2008, leaving her wheelchair-bound but determined to dance again one day.
Her former physiotherapist Matthew Azzopardi described her improvement as an unprecedented “fantastic achievement”.
“After she was operated on she could barely move alone. Even sitting down on a bed was a struggle.
The chances of her walking again were very slight. For someone with such a severe injury to be able to stand is great,” he said. The first time she stood up, her body was so used to sitting down that she passed out.
“I can’t walk perfectly but with more training and treatments I think I will get there. I believe in myself.”
Ms Kravchenko cannot control her knees or feet yet but has managed to develop her hip muscles, which gives her the control to crawl and stand.
Although it’s a struggle, it’s a greater improvement than she had expected to see.
“Two years ago I wouldn’t even dream of this. Just last year I couldn’t even keep my back straight. I was very weak... I was sitting down all the time and I needed help even with turning in bed. Now I can practically do everything alone,” she adds.
Ms Kravchenko has been living in Malta since she was nine, together with her Ukranian mother who shares her enthusiasm to see her defy all odds.
Together they have already spent more than €30,000 on the experimental stem cell treatment in Moscow.
“Instead of a normal birthday present I got a walking frame. My health is more precious,” Ms Kravchenko says about the sacrifices she has had to make.
After the accident, Ms Kravchenko’s doctors told her there were slim chances she could recover from her paralysis from the waist down.
But geneticist Renald Blundell, who was in touch with Ms Kravchenko and has tracked her progress, described her recovery as “normal” for stem cell treatment and he expects her to be able to walk comfortably within a year and gain enough strength to dance freely in two or three years’ time.
Dr Blundell runs a clinic which is providing parents with the opportunity to store the stem cells from their newborn’s umbilical cord to provide future “health insurance”.
“This is not miraculous. It is a normal treatment. With stem cells, around 70 per cent of the time, this can happen. A lot of doctors believe this is just a gimmick but it’s not. I have seen patients walk normally after having been completely paralysed. In some cases the progress was even faster.”
Dr Blundell said the progress is similar to that of babies, who usually take around a year to be able to get on two feet and two or three years to gain coordination.
“I think it will take Vlada around two or three years to be able to dance,” he said.
Ms Kravchenko agrees with Dr Blundell but says her progress depends on how regularly she can go for treatment. The closer the treatments are to each other, the faster her progress.
This was a big year for Ms Kravchenko because she also passed her A levels with flying colours. However, she has had to put off going to university for at least a year to focus her energy and money on getting better.
Last year she launched a campaign to raise funds and she is eternally grateful to the people who supported her. “It’s great. It’s only been a year since I launched my campaign and I’ve already been twice.”
The stem cell treatment involves extraction of adult cells from her body and inserting them into her spine to help their regeneration of the nerve and spinal cord and improve mobility.
“When we cut our fingers, our stem cells make the cut heal. This is basically the same thing, but it needs some help,” she says, urging others to have faith in the sort of experimental treatment she gets in Moscow.
She has already been in contact with other Maltese people with spinal injuries with whom she is sharing her experience.
Donate to the Help Vlada campaign by sending an SMS to 5061 7382 (€2.33), 5061 8918 (€6.99), 5061 9201 (€11.65) or visit www.helpvlada.com.
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