Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robert Slayton Headshot

Stem Cell Research Up Close

Posted: Updated:

Do you know what airsoft is? It's an action game similar to paintball; you dress up in army uniforms and use very realistic looking guns that fire quarter-inch BBs. So accoutered, teams get to run all over the countryside, trying to devise tactics and shooting at each other. Basically, it's the ultimate version of the soldier game you played as a kid, and tremendous fun. I'm in my 50s, and I played it for almost 5 years, religiously.

Up until last August. On August 18, 2008 I went into the hospital. I had developed transverse myelitis, a rare disease of the spinal cord; only 1400 new cases are diagnosed in the entire country all year. As a result I am now fully paralyzed on my left side, a hemiplegic, and spend most of my time in a wheelchair. I will never play airsoft again.

This disease attacks the myelin, the sheath that covers the nerves and enables them to transmit messages. Without this protective layer, I can send out nerve messages, but they never get there, and my body cannot respond. When I attempt to move my leg, it does not move at all, not a millimeter.

That's the real meaning of a spinal cord injury; it changes your life -- a lot. There's also not much chance of a cure, given the extreme nature of this ailment. Except for stem cell research. While it's unlikely that at my age that this will be able to help me, in recent experiments by Geron industries, they actually restored the myelin of lab animals. Rats that were disabled were literally able to walk again.

For some of us this is pretty amazing stuff. One comic who is in a wheelchair quipped that, when asked by a beautiful sexy woman what his biggest fantasy was, he replied "Walking". The Geron experiment, of course, did not get my left leg to move; instead it gave hope, a precious commodity for any human being -- disabled or otherwise.

As a result I've become a very strong advocate of stem cell research, and have gotten angrier and angrier about the past. Under the Bush administration we lost eight years of experiments and possible cures, eight years that might have helped me. At my age I don't have those eight years to spare.

So I've gotten more than a little ticked at the self-righteous opponents of stem cell research. President Bush, by all accounts, still probably rejects this form of science; yet, how many weeks has he ever spent in a wheelchair? To my way of thinking, before he made his decision he should have had to spend one full week living in a wheelchair, with having to be catherized once a day -- and feeling the tube go in, as I do when I have to have this procedure done. Then let's see how he feels about this topic. While I've hardly done any type of comprehensive survey, my impression is that there are few if any folks in wheelchairs who oppose this work; while those on the other side all seem to be hale and hearty, with full use of both legs -- something I now experience only in dreams.

There is an old, basic religious injunction: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That should apply to the disabled as well. It might have a much better chance, however, if some of the stem cell opponents spent some time in the other guys shoes, or in this case, our wheelchairs.