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Utah quadriplegic has high hopes in stem cell transplant in Germany

Published: Wednesday, April 27 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Leslie Hlebasko assists her husband, Jarom, in his wheelchair.

Jack Bozarth, Jack Bozarth, Deseret News

CEDAR CITY — A young quadriplegic from southern Utah has been approved for a stem cell transplant at a specialized medical center in Germany.

Jarom Hlebasko could have never envisioned such an invitation 11 years ago.

It was November 10, 2000. A huge snowstorm had hit Cedar City, and Hlebasko and his friends were jumping in cushioned snow drifts not far from his home. Everything appeared smooth, but on a final jump, the high school graduate hit his head on a solid earth mound hidden underneath.  

Hlebasko broke his spine at the C4 level, paralyzing him from the chest down. Life’s dreams — marriage, his career ambitions — all could have ended at that point. But they didn’t.

Now almost 11 years later, Hlebasko has two college degrees plus two additional academic certificates. He's married to his high school sweetheart, has a daughter and works full time at a small firm called Sunrise Engineering.                

Through all these years, he’s had support from family, friends and co-workers.

“You can’t progress very well if you’re always in a down mood,” he said. “And I’ve definitely been there. But things have always seemed to flip 180 degrees with the blessings I’ve already experienced — my wife, my family. The blessings just keep pouring in.”

Now, a new door has opened, and this husband and father is about to grab hold.

Germany’s XCELL Center has approved him for a stem cell transplant. “This is the kind of hope that gives me air to breathe," Hlebasko said. 

XCELL has injected 4,000 people with varying results. Though rare, as with only one paralysis victim so far, Hlebasko’s dream goes all the way. “My goal since the accident has been to get up and walk again,” he said.

But Hlebasko is also a realist. Even if his own stem cells, cultivated and given new commands in the Germany lab, improve his mobility by only 20 percent — it’s still worth it, he said.

“Anything that I don’t have now would be a huge blessing. I just can’t imagine being able to have the mobility and dexterity to move my fingers and to breathe a little better through my lungs, and experience the quality of life to feel hot and cold sensations.”

No matter the outcome, Hlebasko will take this latest challenge. But then that doesn’t surprise his wife, Leslie.                

“His determination is just awe inspiring," she said. "He’s very courageous in facing each challenge every day. And he has such grace about it. If he tumbles and takes a fall, he makes a joke. He makes everyday worth living.”

Hope for Change is the name of a newly formed southern Utah foundation that will raise money for this young engineer now — and down the road for other disabled people. In fact, Hlebasko hopes when this is all over to return what others have done for him.

“People have been so generous to me throughout my accident and through this whole ordeal,” he said. “I want to give back and do the same thing for others in need.”

Hlebasko will most likely need two transplant injections. The procedure, plus airfare and his stay in Germany, could run upwards of $30,000.                              

E-mail: eyeates@desnews.com

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