In March, Corben traveled to New Delhi, India, where he spent three months receiving stem cell treatments not yet available in the United States. Today, after 14 major injections of stem cells directly into his spinal cord he's doing things he was once told would be impossible.
When 19 year old Corben Brooks stood up for the first time in more than a year and a half, the first thing he noticed was how tall he’d grown.
“When I got hurt, I was 5-8. Now I’m 6-2... It was so weird,” he said.
Corben is recovering from a spinal cord injury he suffered two years ago during a football scrimmage at Mount Shasta High School, where he was just beginning his senior year.
In March, Corben traveled to New Delhi, India, where he spent three months receiving stem cell treatments not yet available in the United States.
Today, after 14 major injections of stem cells directly into his spinal cord, hundreds of smaller injections in his arms and legs and countless hours of strenuous therapy, Corben can wiggle his toes, move his fingers, stand upright with his knees locked and take steps while wearing leg braces – things he was once told would be impossible.
“Corben’s condition has improved dramatically compared to what we were told it ever would be, and he’s continuing to improve,” said Kevin Brooks, Corben’s father. “We were told to understand that he’d probably never get any better.”
Despite the grim outlook, Corben, his family and the entire community never gave up hope that he’d recover.
“We cared for him with the belief that he will get better, and he has, and he’ll keep improving,” Kevin said. “The undying support of the community has helped Corben stay strong through all of this... at least a dozen times a day people ask me how my boy is doing.”
Corben’s decision to try stem cell treatments came after months of research, and though he’s aware that some don’t agree with using stem cells for the treatment of his injury, he said he’s happy with the results.
After his first major procedure, Corben said he could wiggle the big toe on his right foot. At first he could hardly believe it and thought it might be a fluke, but he was soon convinced of the therapy’s effectiveness when he continued to gain control of parts of his body that had been paralyzed since the accident.
It’s the little things that the movement in his fingers have allowed him to do that mean the most, Corben explained, like being able to brush his teeth, type, write, open water bottles, do his hair, turn doorknobs and make his own food.
“Now I pick up the toothbrush without a second thought... I’m pretty self sufficient now, I?can take care of myself and I couldn’t do that before. It’s awesome.”
When Corben stepped out of the airport in New Delhi, he admitted he began to second guess his decision.
“It was a big culture shock... cars were honking, there were no traffic rules. I’d never seen that level of poverty. But once we got to the clinic, things were different.”
Corben and his family were housed in apartments above a clinic run by Dr. Greta Shroff, a physician who has been involved in stem cell research for more than 10 years in India.
In addition to injections in his spinal cord directly at the injury site, Corben also received shots of stem cells in his arms or legs twice a day.
He also participated in physical therapy sessions designed to encourage the injected cells (which are undifferentiated and have the potential to develop into any tissue) to locate his damaged nerves and repair them.
Corben also worked on his fine motor function, with exercises like picking up small objects and molding clay.
For three to four hours in the afternoon, braces were placed on Corben’s legs, which extended from his belly button to his feet.
“I worked on standing and walking with parallel bars... If someone locks my knees, I can stand up by myself holding onto a bar,” Corben said with a smile.
In the evenings, Corben had free time to rest and do some sightseeing.
“We went to the Taj Mahal... it was so perfect, it looked fake,” he said.
Getting used to the extremely hot weather, which averaged between 110 and 115 degrees, was difficult, Corben said.
He also had to get used to the food.
“I lost 15 pounds while I was there... The food was a lot of curry, and it was good for the first few weeks, but there was no variety,” he said.
Though you can find McDonald’s and Subway in New Delhi, Corben said it wasn’t the same, and they didn’t serve beef.
The one thing that was the hardest to get used to was the traffic.
“It took five hours to go 150 miles... driving in taxis was scary,” he said. “They just go as fast as they can until they have to stop and slam on the brakes... The whole experience definitely opened my eyes to a different way of life.”
When Corben returned to the United States in August, he spent a few days at home before heading to San Diego for a 10 week session at Project Walk – an intense physical therapy program specifically designed for people with spinal cord injuries.
While there, Corben concentrated on building the strength and movement he gained in India.
“The improvement I’ve seen is huge... I’m working on hip stability and bridges, and I’m still seeing improvements from the stem cells, because they’ll stay active for a few more months.”
While he’s at home, Corben continues physical therapy sessions four times a week, both at Mercy Medical Center with Lisa Pigoni and with Jackie Duplechien, a personal trainer who comes to his home.
To continue on the road to recovery – Corben’s goal has always been to regain complete use of his legs – he said he’d like to return to India for a second round of treatments.
“I’m living proof [stem cell treatment] works. It’s not a miracle cure, it’s not guaranteed, but I have things I never had after the accident. It’s the little things... you just keep building on them, and then they become big.”
Watching Corben stand up for the first time “was absolutely unbelievable... it was breathtaking to see him doing things that people said would never happen,” said Corben’s mom, Ronna, who wholeheartedly believes the stem cell treatments are contributing to his recovery.
She also credits physical therapy sessions and Project Walk for her son’s improvement.
To help with the expense of another trip to India, more sessions at Project Walk and various other costs for Corben’s recovery, a motorcycle custom built by Kevin will be raffled off.
“We don’t have the specifics yet, but the bike was donated by Richard and Karen English, and it has a long and decorated history,” Kevin said.
For more information about the upcoming raffle, call Kevin at (530) 926-6190.