Archived Story

Progress 2011: The one. The only. T.O.

Published 4:00pm Wednesday, March 2, 2011

LAKE MILLS, Iowa — Tyler Olson’s doctors think the 19-year-old quadriplegic will someday walk again. His stepfather, Bart Winter, expects him to. And the family is wasting no time or resource in making that happen.

In January, Olson began a three-month stay at Nu Tech Mediworld in New Dehli, India, where he receives daily embryonic stem cell injections into his injured spinal column and rigorous physical therapy, which he refers to as “boot camp.”

Tyler Olson sits next to a wall of memorabilia in his bedroom. He has autographed jerseys, footballs and baseballs as well as posters from his junior season on the Lake Mills football team. -- Andrew Dyrdal/ Albert Lea Tribune

Accompanied by his sister, Kessa Olson, and lifetime friend, Luke Storby, Tyler Olson hopes he finds his legs in India, but he hasn’t been promised anything.

“It’s a gamble,” Winter said, of the treatments Olson will receive in New Dehli. “It can cure him and it can literally kill him. We’re siding with aggressiveness rather than passivity.”

Olson was injured in 2008 during his junior season on the Lake Mills football team. On Sept. 5 in Forest City, Iowa, Olson tackled a Forest City running back on the first play from scrimmage. Olson’s head and shoulder jolted into the ball carrier’s thigh pad crushing his vertebrae and sending a bone fragment into his spinal cord.

The tackle looked routine but as Olson laid on the field as flat as a pancake he couldn’t stand up. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

“I heard a pop and was a little dazed,” Olson said, of the hit. “My friends were like ‘Get up’ and I said ‘I can’t move.’ I couldn’t tell if I was moving but I was trying really hard.”

Luckily, Forest City was the only school in the North Iowa Conference that season to have a paramedic on site. Olson was given the necessary anti-swelling steroid within 43 minutes of his injury and received decompression surgery within four hours.

“Out- side of break- ing his neck it happened in the perfect environment,” Winter said.

Olson spent four months at St. Marys hospital in Rochester and has since received treatment in Mason City, Forest City and Lake Mills.

Two and 1/2 years since the injury, Olson has regained a numb feeling from his chest down, developed a stronger voice and has improved his ability to move his arms. His fingers don’t work so to grip something he uses his wrists.

The basement of his parents house has been converted into an apartment where Olson can watch TV and play video games with friends. He can sit in a hot tub or work out with friends in an exercise room, where Olson’s buddies are able to lift weights alongside him while he uses an electronic stimulation bike to help circulation and prevent atrophy in his legs and arms.

His room is filled with gifted memorabilia including signed jerseys, footballs and baseballs of some of his favorite players and posters from when he played football, basketball and baseball for Lake Mills.

He has a pad any 19-year-old would envy, but still doesn’t have his legs — that’s where New Dehli comes in.

“I just want to be like everybody else,” Olson said. “To be successful and have a family someday.”

Olson works with Dr. Geeta Schraff, director of the fertility clinic at Nu Tech Mediworld. From one donated embryo, she has reproduced stem cells and treated more than 600 patients.

Olson is her latest and the embryonic stem cells that are introduced into his spinal column will hopefully be a catalyst in reproducing nerves, creating a bypass around the injured area so that his brain can finally again communicate with the lower half of his body and rejuvenate scar tissue.

According to Winter, Schraff has had a lot of success working with embryonic stem cells and all signs to point to success for Olson, too, because he has just one thing wrong with him — an interrupted spinal cord.

Hero: Tyler Olson
Secret Identity: First-year student at North Iowa Area Community College
Base of operations: Lake Mills
Strength: positive attitude
Kryptonite: ESPN’s “Sportscenter”
Origin: Olson was born in Omaha, Neb. and moved to Lake Mills, Iowa when he was one years old. Olson began playing football when he was in seventh grade.