Leukemia survivor testifies to the value of cord blood treatment

By luke eggleston
SUN staff writer

Ten years ago, Stephen Sprague’s life was saved by what could have been considered — at the time — a miracle of faith and science.

Although cord blood cells have been used to treat over 10,000 people since 1997, at the time it was considered a radical procedure.

“I’m one of the early examples of what this program is all about. You can respect life and cure disease,” said Sprague, who recently spoke about his experience with the treatment at Christian Brothers Academy in DeWitt Friday, March 7, and also Christ the King Church in Liverpool Saturday, March 8.

Sprague joined Kathleen Gallagher, the director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, for the presentation at Christ the King. While Gallagher’s presentation focused on the facts underpinning the potential of cord blood cells, Sprague offered a personal account of his experience with the treatment.

Syracuse Diocese director of the Respect Life Office Lisa Hall assisted in the program. She underscored the importance of presenting a medical alternative to embryonic stem cell research.

“The reason that we offered this teaching through the Respect Life Office was to invite people to consider the choices they make. We were inviting people to consider the reality that the embryo is human life,” she said.

Hall noted that using human embryonic stem cells for the purposes of research strips the embryo of its basic identity as a human being.

“When we use human life from stem cell research, we devalue it as a commodity,” she said. “Human life is not a commodity. It has inherent worth and it’s to be treated with dignity.”

She added that stem cell research seems particularly outrageous when one considers the fact that it is still strictly theoretical in its application. By contrast, cord blood has already been used to treat patients such as Sprague.

“So far embryonic stem cell use is still fruitless, whereas here we have someone who was treated with something from a live birth and it cured him of a life-threatening illness,” Hall said. “Our reason for bringing Steve here was to say, ‘Hey, here’s proof.’”

In 1995, Sprague was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

By the time he was diagnosed, the disease was in its most advanced stage after he had gone through 18 months of chemotherapy. The conventional treatment for leukemia is a bone marrow transplant but there were no potential donors. In his biography, Sprague wrote that his doctors told him he should, “Get his affairs in order.”

Sprague was not ready to give up yet and, in 1997, he was presented with the opportunity to participate in high-risk procedure using cord blood cells. Sprague said he was fortunate to find a match for his particular blood type at a cord blood bank in New York City. Cord blood donations were still rare at the time, but it was being touted even then as an effective and ethical alternative to the alleged therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells.

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Sprague said.

The procedure was successful and Sprague was given a new lease on life. Since then, he has come to believe that he is a “messenger” whose calling is to make medical professionals and patients aware of cord blood as a powerful tool for treatment. He is completely cured of his leukemia.

Before the procedure Sprague was not particularly spiritual, but in the aftermath he found his faith awakened.

“One of the things that I learned throughout this is spirituality,” he said.

He believes that God was at work in helping him find a solution and that it is part of His larger plan. While Sprague was recovering successfully, he realized it was important that others knew about the option.

“I think one of the things I believe is that I was to become a messenger,” he said. “I have become — over the years — an advocate and a messenger.”

However, Sprague believes that the controversial element in the stem cell debate has clouded the issue.

“The moral and ethical debate has come to overshadow what I believe is an issue more specific to science and medicine. One has been proven to work and the other hasn’t,” he said.

He blames the media for obscuring the matter.

“The media likes the controversy,” Sprague said.

Nevertheless, Sprague believes God’s agency was involved in the treatment that rescued him from death.

“This has been an interesting 10 years,” he said. “When you’re told you’re going to die and then you don’t, then you wonder how you came to be in this position of escaping death. And sure a lot of it is medicine, but I believe this is the Lord’s hand at work.”