05/24/2011 11:48AM

Golden Gate: Injured rider gets travel approval for stem-cell treatment


Jockey Michael Martinez, who sustained extensive spinal injuries in a Sept. 12 spill at Golden Gate Fields, has gotten governmental approval to travel to Switzerland to participate in a stem-cell research study conducted by the University of Zurich’s Balgrist Hospital.

Martinez has received his green card as a resident of the United States, enabling his return to the country, as well as a U.S. passport.

Robin Barrett, the local director of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, met with Martinez personally and accompanied him to get his passport.

“We’re extremely grateful for the sensitive and expeditious handling of Michael’s case, which took only four business days,” said Dr. David Seftel, the track physician at Golden Gate Fields. Seftel has been involved in trying to find a stem-cell program for Martinez.

Seftel expressed gratitude to Barrett, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, “and all the fans around the world that sent in letters of support. In fact, Robin told Michael, ‘Just call me from now on,’ because she’s been swamped with so many letters. She even gave Michael her personal phone number.”

The next step in the process is for doctors in Switzerland to fit Martinez into their program.

Balgrist Hospital is conducting a Phase Two test of a new procedure developed by StemCells Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif. Although the test is being conducted in Switzerland, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is monitoring all aspects of the testing.

Martinez will be put on medications that prevent normal immune responses, drugs similar to those used in organ transplants, but he will also need additional medicines to suppress possible infections.

In a best-case scenario, stem cells injected into Martinez’s spinal cord in his neck will help his brain send messages through the spinal cord to all his body.

“We hope that he can get some movement back, that he can stand up and possibly walk, and get some control over his bladder and bowel functions,” said Seftel.

Seftel said that Martinez suffered one of the most devastating injuries that he and trauma doctors at Highland Hospital in Oakland, where the jockey was originally taken, had ever seen.

Simple bruising of the spinal cord can cause paralysis, but Martinez had severe trauma to three inches of his spinal cord and some fragments from three fractured vertebrae.

“This is a difficult challenge,” said Seftel. “It will be a true test to see if stem cells can do a Herculean task.

“But if there’s ever going to be a miracle man, it will be a jockey, because they are so fit and so competitive.”

A benefit golf tournament was held for Martinez on Monday, and Seftel is seeking additional funding to pay for the trip. He is hoping an airline might be able to provide free or discounted tickets for Martinez, his wife, Charlotte, his eight-month-old daughter, Merari, and a medical specialist to fly to Zurich.

Donations to help the Martinez family with expenses can be sent to the Michael Martinez Fund c/o Golden Gate Fields, 1100 Eastside Hwy., Berkeley, Calif, 94710.