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The Unfinished Journey

In the remarkable case of Paul Wagle, a successfully treated disease using adult stem cells is serving as inspiration for a new life journey, one he believes reaches beyond the here and now.  “I know God has a plan for me,” says Paul.  “I don’t know exactly what it is just yet. But I know he’s preparing me for something.”  Given his astonishing story, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

It begins as a 10-year-old boy who discovers that the swing of a baseball bat creates pain so intense in his bones that he can barely walk, barely stand.  Confusion and frustration lead to countless unanswered questions. Word finally comes of a diagnosis, a disastrous diagnosis.

“The doctor looked at me with a stern look in his eyes and says, ‘Paul, you have cancer.’ I was ten years old and I really didn’t know what that meant.  My mother, she had had cancer, so I knew what that was kind of like for her.”

Paul’s mother Susan had fought--and won--her own battles against cancer.  That experience offered a hint of what she knew might be in store for her son; countless hospital visits, chemotherapy and endless hours of nausea and fatigue.  News that all of that would need to be endured by her youngest child hit like a bolt of lightning.

“I fell and my husband caught me” recalls Susan when she heard the word ‘cancer.’ “(My husband) Tom just happened to be standing behind me and he caught me.  That was the last thing I wanted to hear.” 

Paul was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), a type of cancer characterized by the overproduction and accumulation of white blood cells. Left untreated, these cancerous white blood cells cause damage and death.  “It was only in my bone marrow,” explained Paul. “So that’s what caused the intense pain, pressure inside my bones.”

Unwelcome as it was, the diagnosis brought a certain sense of relief.  Chemotherapy treatment was recommended and doctors pegged Paul’s chances of recovery at 85%, with medication administered directly into his body via a Hickman catheter to the heart, beginning immediately.  Paul endured the chemo regimen for 2 1/2 years, carrying meds to school in a backpack, frequently throwing up during class and swallowing as many as 20-30 pills a day.

It all seemed worth the effort when doctors declared Paul’s leukemia to be in remission, but in fact, his journey was just beginning.  Another medical disaster struck Paul when he unexpectedly suffered what’s called a “grand mal” seizure.  In the emergency room that night doctors couldn’t say if he’d survive until morning. “Miraculously, the bleeding in my brain stopped,” recalls Paul.  “I made a full recovery.  I had to learn how to tie my shoes and walk and eat again by myself, but I was alive.”

After suffering through chemotherapy and the effects of his seizure, Paul figured he was due for a break. It was not to be. Not long after doctors declared his cancer to be in remission, it returned.

“I was one of the 15% of patients where chemotherapy did NOT work,” says Paul. “They gave me an option—try chemo again or sign on for this new thing called an adult stem cell transplant.  Since it looked like my cancer was chemo-resistant, I decided to try the adult stem cell transplant.  I remember being very hopeful in the way they described it but had no idea how hard it might be on me.”

The goal of an adult stem cell transplant is to replace “bad” cells in the body with “good” cells, creating an entirely new immune system.  Very often, healthy adult stem cells are harvested from one’s own body or perhaps from someone with a close match of blood type, like a sibling. In Paul’s case there was yet another hurdle to cross—neither of these methods was available.  So a national search began for a match that focused on umbilical cord blood, a rich source of adult stem cells that may have been saved or “banked” by someone after the birth of their child; they were looking for a match from someone completely unrelated to Paul.

Against formidable odds, a match was found at a cord blood bank in New York. (Read more about cord blood banking by clicking Here).  In preparation for the adult stem cell transplant, Paul went through intense radiation and chemotherapy to destroy his “bad” cells. The new adult stem cells were then injected into his bloodstream, from which they “homed in” on his bone marrow, began forming a new immune system and blood-forming system, and the transplant was complete.

The recovery period was as brutal of a trial as Paul had ever experienced, and lasted more than nine months.  It even included yet another near-death experience with an infection called septicemia, where doctors gave him only a 5% chance of survival.  But survive he did.

Eventually he grew stronger and today, nearly 10 years after his adult stem cell transplant, Paul is as healthy as ever and his life journey continues on a path he thought he’d never take. 

“I was going to school for chemistry and what I wanted to do was get an MD and PhD (degrees) to practice medicine and do research,” explains Paul, who earned undergraduate degrees in biochemistry, chemistry and philosophy. “But I had another call, a call to serve people in other ways.  So I am discerning and studying to be a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Wichita (Kansas).”

“I can actually still serve people, but it’s not going to be their physical bodies, I’ll be treating their spiritual bodies. That’s what I want to do and the joy in that, it’s inexplicable, I can’t put it into words.”

Thanks to an adult stem cell transplant—and what Paul believes to be no small amount of Divine assistance—his journey continues.  Where it leads to and what adventures lie ahead along that path is a story yet to be told.