As one who believes in staying physically fit, the last couple of years have been a bit of a challenge. A while back, a foot injury limited the number of miles I could run. As a result, I decided to increase the frequency with which I lifted weights. One afternoon I had just completed the very manly act of curling 100 lb. dumbells (fine… 35 lbs) and then remembered that I wanted to test out a tennis video game for our daughter on our Xbox Kinect. I wasn’t sure if the game would be too difficult for a small child, so I decided to test it out with my formidable athletic skills. The Kinect system involves a camera picking up on the player’s movements so you are actively “skiing” or “boxing” or, in this case, “playing tennis”.
Thus, with my massive (not droopy) biceps still being tense from doing curls, I started swinging my left arm at a tennis ball that didn’t really exist. That’s when I felt something go horribly wrong with my elbow. Apparently, my formidable athletic skills were no match for a game I thought my pre-schooler might enjoy. Over the next two years, I made several trips to doctors (during which I simply said the injury occurred while lifting weights rather than having them write down “video tennis injury” in their charts). No treatment worked. Finally, pain forced me to visit the physicians at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), Sports Medicine facility north of Pittsburgh. We gave cortisone shots a chance and they failed. Another option was surgery, which has a limited success rate and includes a great deal of recovery time. But, I was also told about an “experimental” procedure called Platelet-Rich-Plasma therapy, or PRP.
With PRP, doctors take your own blood, put it into a centrifuge, extract your platelets, and then inject them into the damaged area. The platelets are supposed to promote healing and possibly help the patient avoid surgery. The jury is still out, but some patients (including several pro athletes) have reported positive results. So, rather than subject myself to surgery (only 85%) effective, I decided to give PRP a chance.
Two days before my appointment, I was called by a UPMC employee responsible for getting me pre-registered. She told me, “This (PRP) is really cool. I’ve never seen one of these come through!”
Okay. That’s nice.
One day before my appointment, I was contacted with someone from UPMC who had an insurance question (although my insurance did not cover experimental treatments). After we cleared up the insurance issue, she asked me if I had any questions. I said I did, and rattled off a couple. She paused (presumably looking to see what procedure I was having done) and then said, “Oooo. PRP, huh? I don’t know. I’ll ask and get back to you. The questions weren’t really important, so I assured her she didn’t need to bother. She replied, “No, no! I want to know. I’ve never had anybody come through here get PRP!”
The day of the appointment, I showed up at the center and checked in with the receptionist. She smiled and said, “Oh, Mr. Hensley. You’re the one getting the special injection.”
As I was waiting in the exam room, a medical resident came in and started to make an attempt to explain the procedure to me. It started with, “Well… what I guess the doctor is going to do is…”
It turns out there is something extremely disconcerting about everyone being so anxious to see what will happen to you when you receive an experimental treatment.
The next thirty minutes involved one failed attempt at drawing my blood (damn my steely veins) and then a successful attempt. Then my blood hit the centrifuge dance floor and the platelets were extracted. Next, the doctor arrived and used an ultrasound to guide the syringe containing my super-charged platelets into the damaged tendon in my elbow. Now, I have a decent pain threshold. So keep that in mind as I explain that a long needle being pressed into a damaged tendon hurts a great deal. The injection of the platelets into the aforementioned tendon HURTS LIKE A MOTHER.
At this point, I had three puncture wounds in my arms and two milliliters of my own yellowish platelets pumped back into my body. I texted my wife and told her I thought the medical staff was trying to turn me into Wolverine. She replied, “Cool!” I reminded her that Wolverine wasn’t exactly happy and well-adjusted and then I started searching the room for a radioactive spider. If I was going to be turned into a superhero, then I wanted to cover as many bases as possible.
It will be weeks or even months before I know if the treatment worked or if I will be asked to join the Avengers. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu had the same procedure done, so if this treatment helps me grow hair like his then I’d consider the treatment a huge success. Elbow be damned.
All joking aside, the UPMC staff members at the Lemieux Sports Complex were tremendous and their enthusiasm, albeit a little scary at times, demonstrated their passion for the job. I’d go back there in a heartbeat… especially if I end up developing superpowers.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology