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It all started not with his leg, but with his finger. There was this tiny crack on Chip Gagnier’s finger, like a paper cut. But that tiny crack wouldn’t go away.
“It got worse and worse and worse,” said Gagnier, from his Indianapolis home.
Gagnier’s finger crack was diagnosed as scleroderma – an autoimmune disorder that causes hardening of the skin. That tiny crack is how it started -- what Gagnier would eventually call living hell.
The scleroderma led to peripheral arterial disease, which narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to the limbs. More and bigger wounds formed that wouldn’t heal.
One wound on Gagnier’s little right toe was so raw and open, it was down to his bone. He had to cut out his shoe so his toe could stick out. He covered it with a piece of gauze.
It was miserable.
Doctors tried an artery graft and Gagnier thought it was working, but then the arteries narrowed again.
And the pain was back – seemingly 10 times worse. Gagnier would come home from his job as a manufacturer’s rep in the automotive aftermarket and could do nothing.
“I can’t describe it,” Gagnier said. “I was in a ball on the floor.”
He most certainly couldn’t do what he loved most – play golf.
Gagnier adores the sport. It’s a love that goes back to his childhood and teenage years working at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan.
He cooked hamburgers at the food stand. He washed pots and pans in the kitchen. And he caddied.
All the while, he soaked up the sport -- and became really good at it. In is 20s, Gagnier even spent two years in Florida dabbling in professional golf. He eventually decided golf should remain a hobby.
And it has. Gagnier has a three handicap and 11 holes in ones. He loves to play any chance he gets.
Yet, as his peripheral arterial disease got worse, golf and everything else was on hold in Gagnier’s life.
The pain was unbearable and doctors were talking the unthinkable -- amputation.
“I didn’t care. I was ready to do anything,” said Gagnier, a married father of two grown children, son Max and daughter Alex. “I couldn’t take the pain anymore.”
Max even had a prosthetic leg picked out for his dad. The family was devastated.
But then one day just when amputation seemed the only option, Gagnier got a call from one of his best friends, who is a doctor.
IU Health was doing a clinical trial using stem cell therapy for people with peripheral arterial disease.
Gagnier seemed to be the perfect candidate.
Dr. Michael Murphy is a vascular surgeon at IU Health. He also is a research leader with the Vascular and Adult Stem Cell Therapy Center. He knows the detriment peripheral arterial disease (PAD) can cause.
More than 100,000 patients in the United States undergo amputation every year, due to advanced disease in the leg. Nearly 15 million more have crippling pain that limits their walking and even confines them to wheelchairs.
Dr. Murphy is working to change all that. There is building evidence that peripheral arterial disease can be treated using a patient’s own stem cells. IU has led the nation in using stem cell therapy to treat PAD.
More than a decade ago, Dr. Murphy was part of the first FDA-approved U.S. clinical trials using stem cells for PAD.
The way it works? Stem cells are taken from one part of a patient’s body and injected into a part of the body in need of repair. Since then, IU Health has become known as a hotbed for leading advancements in stem cell research.
And as phase 3 of those trials rolled out seven years ago, Gagnier enrolled. In 2010, Gagnier’s right leg received stem cells. Two years later, his left leg went through the procedure.
His wife, Rene, who is a nurse, couldn’t believe it. Soon after the injections, she saw new little capillaries forming under Gagnier’s skin.
He was healing. It got better every day, every week, every month – and now for seven years.
“It’s great,” she said. “It’s night and day from where he used to be.”
Gagnier agrees. There is no more pain. He is back playing golf. Life is good. But Gagnier said he felt being part of the trial had a bigger cause them just himself.
“My whole thing was if it worked for me, that was great,” he said. “But if they learned something that helped someone else, that would be just as great.”
-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Benbow via email email@example.com or on Twitter @danabenbow.