Bart Starr still is making his way back from two significant health setbacks since his visit to Green Bay last November.
But now that the legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback has become more active recently, his family is looking into whether he might benefit from a second round of the experimental stem-cell treatment he tried last year. And though it might be a long shot, the Starrs are not ruling out his return for another Packers game this season.
“I don’t want last year’s event to be the last time that he was in Green Bay,” his son, Bart Starr Jr., said this week. “If it was, it was an amazing experience. But I’d love to have him up (there) again. He got so much out of that. There was nothing like the feeling of being back in Green Bay, being in the presence of the fans, seeing the people within the Packers organization, seeing Brett (Favre) and Aaron (Rodgers) and what it’s like to be in an electric environment like that. I’d love to replicate that.”
Starr, 82, was debilitated in September 2014 by two strokes and a heart attack. His condition improved after a stem-cell procedure and rehabilitation last summer and fall, but in the last six months he has suffered two setbacks: a broken hip just before Christmas and an infection that left him hospitalized for several days in May. He just returned to an exercise regimen this week after about a month of inactivity while recovering from the infection.
The broken hip in December revealed a paradox in Starr’s recovery. Bart Jr. said his father was invigorated in the weeks after the family’s trip to Green Bay to take part in the ceremony to unveil Brett Favre’s retired No. 4 at Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving. Starr had advanced to the point he could walk short distances on his own. But after brushing his teeth one night in late December, Starr caught his foot on a bathroom rug and fell. The broken hip left him bedridden for about two months.
“When you have had a serious stroke or in his case plural, strokes, the last thing you want to do is stop moving,” Bart Jr. said. “You need activity. The lack of movement (after the broken hip) certainly was a setback both physically and cognitively. … He might not have broken his hip if he hadn’t made quite the recovery he’d made, which is almost a cruel irony.”
Starr returned to a more limited physical rehabilitation regimen in the spring but then became terribly ill with an infection and spent five or six days in the hospital about a month ago. He’s now recovered and on Monday had his first exercise session since then.
“He’s had a couple setbacks,” Bart Jr. said, “but I have a feeling that as we speak today we’ve turned the corner versus where we were a few weeks ago battling that infection. So I’m feeling much more optimistic right now.”
Hockey legend Gordie Howe's death late last week at age 88 did not escape the Starrs’ notice. News of Howe’s experimental treatment with stem cells in 2014 was one of the reasons Starr’s family looked into and finally agreed to take Bart to San Diego and then Mexico for the same procedure last year.
Howe’s family had described Gordie as being on the brink of death in December 2014 when he underwent stem-cell treatment for the first time. He ended up going through the procedure’s cycle at least twice. The Starrs never met Howe before his first procedure, so they don't know first-hand how bad off he was after suffering a stroke in October 2014, on top of issues (dementia, heart disease, spinal stenosis) that had plagued him up to then. But they talked to one of Howe’s son, Murray, who's a doctor.
“(Murray Howe) felt the big thing was that while (Gordie) was alive it improved his quality of life quite a bit,” Bart Jr. said this week.
To be clear, the science of stem cells is in its infancy. It doesn’t take much searching on Google to learn that while stem cells are an exciting new branch of medical science, researchers know little about them as treatments for real-life infirmities. Stem-cell procedures haven’t undergone rigorous double-blind study, though one company is about to begin a trial in the United States for patients with traumatic brain injuries. That means it’s impossible to know whether the treatments Howe and Starr have undergone helped, and if they did, how much.
But anecdotally, the Starrs feel similarly about Bart’s treatment as the Howes did with Gordie.
Now the family is looking into whether Starr should undergo another cycle of the stem-cell protocol. One cycle consists first of an infusion of mesenchymal stem cells from the bone marrow of an adult donor, and the second cycle several months later is an infusion of neural stem cells from a donated fetus.
The company that’s conducting the trials has done multiple cycles on a few other patients, but the Starrs don’t know whether the results have been promising. They expect to find out in the next few weeks whether there’s good reason to think another cycle will help Bart.
“If they say, for instance, look, this isn’t a 50-50 shot where he’ll have a little benefit or not, he’s 80 or 90 percent likely to see some significant improvement again,” Bart Jr. said, “then that answers the question. We’d try to do that. But if they say the diminished returns on the second go-round aren’t really worth it, then we’ll have to listen to them also. Having not spoken to them I don’t know what to say yet, but I’m certainly very curious what they’ll tell us.”
Because Starr responded well to the goal of attending the Favre ceremony and appeared better than ever in its aftermath, the family is looking to set another goal for him this year. That’s where the possibility of attending another Packers game comes in, though it’s a long way from here to there.
“He was so into the game (on Thanksgiving last year),” Bart Jr. said. “He stayed up later than ever (that night). When we got back home, the next several weeks he was lights out doing great until he broke his hip. I felt that really (was) if not the equivalent of another stem-cell treatment, it certainly was a boost to his psychology, his feeling for what matters, all those 78,000 people and to re-connect with the city he cares for so much, it definitely provided a positive boost.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.