MORGAN CITY — After nearly five years of searching tirelessly for an outlet to return to some form of what his life used to be like, Wesley Bandemer has found what he needs.
Now, he just needs more of it.
The Morgan City resident, paralyzed below the shoulders since a June 10, 2006, motocross accident in which he shattered a vertebra, previously has sought treatment — both stateside with physical therapy on the West Coast in California at top-flight rehab facilities as well as overseas in Germany where he received injections of adult stem cells.
However, none of it has worked.
Unfazed, Bandemer and his family continued looking for treatment options, and through conversation with a friend, he came in contact with an Australian woman who wanted to attend a rehab program in California for those with spinal cord injuries.
In their conversations, she told Bandemer about a program in New Delhi, India, in which patients are injected with embryonic stem cells supplied through in-vitro fertilization that has been used to treat more than 800 patients with various kinds of diseases.
Thus, Bandemer began more than a year’s journey of fundraising to fund the 88-day, $60,000 trip.
Finally, in February of this year, he and his mother, Mechelle Bandemer, headed for India where he received stem cell injections into his blood stream in his arms and legs twice per day.
He had 14 major procedures that targeted major arteries in his armpit, the spinal area into the back of his neck and the spinal canal around his spinal cord, too. His body was flooded with billions of stem cells for a two-day period via an epidural catheter, too.
Upon his return from India, Bandemer came back with more than just a good handle on the Indian language. He now had the first movements he has experienced in his biceps, triceps and arms since before the accident, too.
“I never could move my arms like this,” he says as he moves his right forearm slightly while sitting in his wheelchair at his Ditch Avenue home this week. “I used to have my arms strapped down, because if they fell off, I couldn’t move … to get them back on.”
During his time in the Asian country under the care of Dr. Geeta Shroff at Nu Tech Mediaworld — the New Delhi, India, hospital where he stayed during his trip — he also experienced “slight tingling” of his toes a few times. These were the first sensations he experienced down his legs since before the accident.
With assistance to put him in position, he also was able to stand up by himself with a walker for quite awhile, supporting himself with his arms. He also was able to sit up for up to 20 minutes on the edge of his hospital bed without assistance during the stay, too.
“I can lose my balance, but they (medical staff) would try to knock me over (to test strength), and I’d fight them,” he says. “I can sit up really well.”
Now that he has experienced his first successful treatment, Bandemer is hungry for more.
Currently, he is fundraising to fund a second trip to New Delhi where he will undergo more stem cell injections and more frequent procedures.
While his first trip lasted three months and cost $60,000, he is planning a four to six week trip this time that is estimated to cost $25,000.
“One of the biggest costs involved is our plane tickets and they fluctuate,” Bandemer says.
While the treatment has worked for him, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved it.
“It’s just a shame that we have to go all the way across the world instead of being able to get it (treatment) in our own country,” he says, although he will just as quickly tell visitors how he will go back no matter what because the treatment works.
Anyone who would like to help on his return trip can do so by dropping a donation off at Teche Federal Bank in Bandemer’s name or by contacting him at his website, www.wes4one7.com.
“I can’t thank them enough,” Bandemer says of those who have donated or are considering donating. “This is my life and without them, I couldn’t do this. They are pretty much making my life happen. (If) I didn’t have all this support from everyone then I wouldn’t be able to do this. They are making my life goals happen.”
For those who would like to follow his progress, he has an archive (www.youtube.com/wes4one7) of 87 videos from his first trip to India to show his donors what their money is being used for.
According to Shroff, Bandemer will get the full benefit of the treatment with annual visits for up to five years.
“She (Shroff) would really like us to go back twice a year, but there’s financial limitations as well as other obligations with the rest of the family,” M. Bandemer explains. “That makes it really hard. But we’re preparing for our second trip this coming February.”
The family already has raised $6,000 for the return trip but has more fundraising planned.
While his initial visit was a success, it was hardly as easy or as smooth as it sounds.
Although he was optimistic, he did not fully know what to expect, so there was some fear that the treatment might make his condition even worse.
Then, upon leaving their first flight, the challenges continued, as W. Bandemer cannot sit in his wheelchair — which is adapted for his needs and releases pressure off his spine and his hips — on airplanes.
“The airline seats aren’t like that, and he can’t move the whole time,” M. Bandemer says.
Once they arrived, the duo had to fight through the language barrier — only the doctors, many of the nurses and the physios (physical therapists) speak more than a few words of English. Many people outside of the hospital, which they had to leave to travel to Shroff’s clinic, did not speak English.
“I was really contemplating leaving,” W. Bandemer says of those early days. “I was so scared, like I didn’t even want to be there any more. It was that rough.”
Then, there was the food.
“Hospital food in the U.S. is horrible, and hospital food in India was that much worse,” he says.
Luckily, the Bandemers made friends with a family from Australia, who had moved to India for treatment of one of their family members. One of this family’s members was a chef, who cooked sometimes for Bandemer and his mother.
Still, there were other challenges, specifically the initial six weeks of treatment.
“They gave me the stem cells and they waited to see if there’d be any adverse reactions to them just to be safe,” Bandemer says.
In the meantime, the Bandemers saw no results.
“We had doubts the first six weeks (we) were there, because we didn’t see results,” M. Bandemer says. “It takes that amount of time to see results.”
But once the movements started coming, the tears started flowing from M. Bandemer, while other patients’ moms also were touched by W. Bandemer’s progress.
While W. Bandemer is appreciative of what he has achieved and calls the strides he has made “huge,” he keeps them all in perspective as baby steps on his ultimate goal of independence.
“It’s never really been a question of will he or won’t he (achieve milestones),” M. Bandemer says. “It’s when? It’s his life goal. He won’t quit. If this doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. We knew if there was even half a percent of a chance, Wesley would find a way.”
He said he has an end goal in mind where he sees himself excited and crying, but he hasn’t reached that point yet.
That point may come if he takes his first step or when he is able to feed himself or scratch his face.
“As much progress as he made, he’s still 100 percent dependent on someone else for his daily care, so if he gets to a point where he can do things for himself, that would be life-changing,” M. Bandemer says.
That independence, especially his arms, is what W. Bandemer is working towards.
“If you have your arms, you can live completely independently, so we (have) always focused on that,” he says.
While he knows of no one that has emerged from the Indian treatments completely cured, he said an Australian man who had his spinal cord severed — an injury much worse than Bandemer’s — now can kick his legs after approximately eight visits to India, while another woman who was paralyzed from the legs down for 16 years now can squat and move her toes.
Despite all the progress possible, the Bandemers know that Wesley will never completely return to his pre-injured state, and if he ever takes an actual step, it won’t be the same as a step that many people take for granted daily.
Still, he isn’t sitting idle as he goes to physical therapy twice a week in Houma to keep what he has gained, and if possible, regain any more movement.
“I see Wesley taking steps one day because he won’t stop until he does,” M. Bandemer says. She is confidant that with ever-evolving technology, some tool will be developed that will help him regain some semblance of what he once did so freely.
Steps or not, W. Bandemer just wants independence.
“I’m thankful for the experience, definitely,” he says of his paralysis. “I don’t like being like this, but I’m thankful for my mindset now and everything I’ve learned. I know what I want out of life. I just need the simple things, and independence is my ultimate goal in life. If I have the tiniest, tiniest house and don’t have anything, if I just have my independence, I’ll be truly one of the happiest people in the world.”