A firsthand experience with stem cell treatment in pitching arm
After Bartolo Colon's success with stem cell treatment, C.J. Nitkowski tried it
Nitkowski, a former major league pitcher, has a torn rotator cuff and labrum
Nitkowski spent 10 seasons in big leagues and hopes to play again in Asia
The Bartolo Colon story has intrigued me since it first broke in May. Colon is a former AL Cy Young winner whose career seemed to be lost but who is now pitching effectively again for the Yankees at age 38. I did more than raise an eyebrow when I heard that his incredible comeback was aided by a relatively unknown stem cell procedure. As an injured pitcher who is also 38, I had to know more. It didn't take long for me to find Colon's doctor, Joseph Purita of The Institute of Regenerative and Molecular Orthopedics in Florida.
I spoke on the phone with Dr. Purita's medical assistant, Jeremy Carreno, and he walked me through the procedure, the science and the benefits. Carreno asked me to send my medical records, which included radiology reports from 2009 and 2011 MRIs on my left shoulder. I knew I had a rotator cuff tear and also one in my labrum. I pitched with the tears in 2010, eight months after I originally suffered the injury, but it wasn't feeling right this year.
This wasn't a quality-of-life issue for me; my arm was fully functional and feeling pretty good. My injury was manageable. I could play catch with my son and throw batting practice. I just couldn't crank it up in the low 90s anymore, and if a minor medical procedure could help me do that again I wanted to give it a shot.
Dr. Purita reviewed my records and said I was a good candidate for the procedure. He said my shoulder wasn't nearly as damaged as Colon's. My next decision was weighing the cost versus the reality of me ever pitching again professionally. The usual cost is $4,800 for everything. That includes drawing stem cells from my fat and bone marrow and re-injecting them into my shoulder plus 2-3 rounds of platelet rich plasma (PRP). The entire process would take 9-12 weeks, depending on how much time I took between PRP sessions; a minimum of four weeks is recommended each time.
That price was better than the $7,500 I was quoted from a different doctor last year. His process was somewhat similar to what Dr. Purita does but instead of immediately injecting me with my own bone marrow and fat stem cells on the same day, the other doctor harvests them for approximately a month first. Manipulation of stem cells is frowned upon by the FDA and considered much more risky. Dr. Purita believes he has the more effective, safer way of executing stem cell and PRP therapy.
The price was justifiable but Dr. Purita gave me an even better deal knowing that treating professional athletes was good exposure for his business. I made my appointment for mid-July, booked my flight and was soon in Dr. Purita's office in Boca Raton, Fla.
Dr. Purita's office is like any other doctor's office you'd expect to see in South Florida; I was the youngest person in the waiting room by 40 years. After my initial consultation with Dr. Purita I was brought down to the third floor, where the 4-5 hour process began.
The first step was to draw the fat. Dr. Purita was concerned that I didn't have enough, but then he grabbed my love handles and said, "Oh, here we go." I lay on my left side while the fat was extracted from my waist, 5-6cc. It was relatively painless. An anesthetic was administered and I only felt an occasional slight prick or burn.
Dr. Purita left after the fat was drawn. I waited about 20-30 minutes in a waiting area and they went back to start the bone marrow extraction process.
This is slightly more intimidating but is not what you think. In this process, a hole is not drilled into the bone but rather a soft spot is found and bone marrow is drawn with a needle. After anesthesia, Dr. Purita put a sizable needle in me and then told me I'd feel some tapping. He literally used a small hammer to tap into the left side of my lower back. There was practically no discomfort at all.
During my phone consultation the topic of HGH had come up, and it came up again when I arrived at Dr. Purita's office (I didn't initiate either conversation). It was made clear to me that while they usually administer a small dosage of HGH in the procedure, they do not do so when treating athletes.
I prodded Dr. Purita just to try to learn more about the advantages of mixing HGH with stem cells and PRP. He told me the IGF-1 in synthetic HGH helps stimulate the stem cells and helps the cells to do their job better. The amounts used are so small that the suggestion that HGH is performance-enhancing in this instance is absurd.
Dr. Purita actually brought up former big leaguer Andy Pettitte, who admitted using HGH in 2002 to help recover from an elbow injury. He said in a case like Pettitte's, HGH therapy made perfect sense. There is no performance-enhancing involved, just an aid in injury recovery.
I found it interesting though that he said to some degree PRP therapy does something very similar to HGH. PRP is a process that essentially separates your blood, leaving part of it extremely strong. This stronger, platelet-rich plasma contains your own IGF-1 and helps heal an injury, just like HGH. It's all a very fascinating and natural use of your body to heal your body.