Injured Rider Martinez Becomes a Father

Paralyzed jockey could be headed for Panama for stem cell treatment, doctor says.

On the same day paralyzed Northern California jockey Michael Martinez learned he is not a candidate for using embryonic stem cells to treat his severed spinal cord in a clinical trial, he became a father.

Martinez's fiancé, Charlotte Garcia, went into labor Sept. 21 and later gave birth to a five-pound, 14-ounce baby girl named Merari Charlotte, said Dennis Patterson, the 24-year-old rider's agent. The birth took place at Highland General Hospital in Oakland, the same facility where Martinez has been hospitalized since undergoing 11 hours of emergency surgery after he sustained severe injuries in a Sept. 12 fall at Golden Gate Fields.

Speaking by phone Sept. 22, Patterson said Martinez, paralyzed from the waist down, has been transferred from the hospital's intensive care unit to a private room. Martinez, who also received significant brain bruising in the fall, has been more alert in recent days but "he is still not talking a lot," the agent said.

There has been a whirlwind of activity in Martinez's case during the past three days.

Dr. David Seftel, the physician at Golden Gate Fields who is advising the Martinez family, also said Sept. 22 that he has been in contact with Dr. Jorge Paz Rodriguez, the medical director of the Stem Cell Institute of Panama, regarding adult stem-cell therapy for Martinez and is encouraged by the initial response.

He said that a decision should be made in the next day or two on whether Martinez, who is a native of Panama, will be accepted for treatment there. The clinic has also treated jockey Rene Douglas, paralyzed more than year ago in a fall at Arlington Park, although many months had already passed before he began stem cell injections.

"I think that anything we can do to give this young man a chance is well worth taking," Seftel said.

It is generally thought that embryonic stem cell treatment carries a better chance for potential recovery of some motor skills in paralysis cases. Seftel noted that benefits of adult stem-cell injections have been relatively modest. He said that use of adult stem cells in a case as acute as Martinez's would be "groundbreaking," adding, "The sooner you do this, the better his chances."

"There's no theoretical reason why adult stem cells should be less efficacious fundamentally," he said. Scarring of the spinal cord area that was injured, however, is the biggest impediment to success, he said, which is why quick action is needed.

Martinez would have the added advantage of being near to family members who could provide close blood cell and bone marrow matches in the event he required more stem cells than he could produce, the doctor noted.

The change of focus to the Panama clinic came after Martinez was declined as a candidate for embryonic stem cell treatments by Dr. Richard Fessler, a specialist at Northwestern University, due to the severity of the damage to his spine. The rider was to have been transferred to UC San Francisco Medical Center for a high resolution MRI exam Sept. 20, but the move was canceled when the California Division of Workers' Compensation reportedly refused to authorize it.

Seftel said that in order to do the MRI, doctors would have had to remove some of the rods that were placed by surgeons to support Martinez's spine in the original surgery, causing intense pain for the patient. Though disappointed, Seftel understood the reasoning. He called it one of the greatest "clinical conundrums that a clinician can face."

Martinez should also learn soon whether he will be transferred to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which has a rehabilitation clinic that specializes in spinal cord injuries, Seftel said. An evaluation of the jockey's condition was expected to take place on Sept. 22.

Seftel said he was confident that Martinez is in good enough condition to travel by plane to Panama.

"They have done a superb job," he said of the hospital staff. "He is no longer on IVs (intravenous fluids). He's eating. He is alert, he's talking. He has very little discomfort. The possibility (of going to Panama for treatment) is something the family is very much in favor of."

Martinez has been surrounded by his family, who arrived last week from Panama, his cousin Alex Solis, friends and fellow jockeys since the injury.

"We're all part of a big family at Golden Gate Fields," Seftel said.

Solis, who recently returned to New York for riding engagements this week, made an "unbelievable contribution" in talking to doctors and explaining matters to Martinez's family, Seftel added.

Seftel said Martinez was "very depressed" Sept. 21 and had not yet seen his newborn child. He has not given into his plight, however.

"He's not aware of the details," the doctor said of Martinez's mental state. "But he's a fighter, Clearly, he wants us to do whatever it takes."