Scott Zettner never has a bad day. Not even after blood vessels ruptured in his brain and turned his life upside down.
“I have good days, and I have great days,” says the 62-year-old stroke survivor. “And I never give up.” The avid cyclist and marathon runner had joined his younger daughter, Kristen, for a 36-mile bicycle race on March 25, 2017, when a hemorrhagic stroke sent him to the ground and began leaking blood into his brain.
“Kristen asked him to smile and say his name, but he couldn’t,” says Scott’s wife, Peggy.
Scott’s stroke initially hid deep inside the brain where surgeons rarely operate. Survival rates for hemorrhagic stroke can dip below 40%, and even patients who survive can face severe disability. When the bleeding moved further up in his brain the next day, his doctors in Conroe, Texas, seized the opportunity to perform surgery and relieve the pressure.
Once he awoke and recovered from surgery, Scott set his mind to tackling his rehabilitation with an athlete’s determination. “I didn’t know how long it would take, but I was going to get through it,” he remembers.
Scott completed six weeks of initial rehab at TIRR Memorial Hermann. Within five months after his stroke, he was out of his wheelchair, walking without a cane and standing in the shower. Now, he can manage a mile walk in 25 minutes—a step toward reclaiming the life he once knew.
His never-quit attitude made such an impression on his therapists in Houston and San Antonio that they asked him to visit their struggling patients.“I tell them I got a second chance, and I encourage them to never, never, never give up hope,” Scott says.
Despite making headway on his recovery, Scott continued to have trouble controlling his extremities. In 2018, about a year after the stroke, Scott was introduced to Sean I. Savitz, MD, with McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), who conducts research to determine if stem cells can help reduce the brain damage caused by a stroke. Savitz estimates the window for stem cell treatment for acute stroke is between 10 and 36 hours, maybe longer.
Even though Scott was beyond the initial estimated treatment window, Savitz thought that stem cell treatment could improve Scott’s condition. Savitz applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a special compassionate use approval after determining Scott had no other effective treatment options. In January 2019, nearly 22 months after his stroke, Scott received a transplant from a healthy donor.
“His range of motion, his ease of movement, everything was quicker, and he was speaking a whole lot better,” Peggy says.
“We’ve been very pleased with Scott’s progress. We have seen improvements in his muscle strength. It’s been encouraging, which is why we are ready to apply to the FDA to move from a single-patient to a 10-patient study of patients like him, months, even years after a stroke,” Savitz says.
“I will run again, and I will ride again,” Scott says.“God has a very good way of working with this.”