By Ian Hamilton, Regina Leader-Post Sports July 17, 2014
Glen Nelson's University of Regina Cougars basketball career was built around effort and tenacity.
He's displaying the same traits now, some 30 years later, as he attempts to overcome paralysis from the mid-chest down.
"I am getting better, but it's a journey of little, ittybitty baby steps," Nelson says. "If you ask anybody who knows me, I'm the furthest thing from baby steps because I'm a hundred-milean-hour crazy guy.
"That has been a big challenge for me, but it is coming."
Nelson, 56, first felt pain in his back on July 1, 2013, when he was preparing for a round of golf. He eventually had surgery Nov. 27, but awoke from the procedure paralyzed.
He has been living in the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre since Jan. 2, working to get himself as strong as he can - and hoping to get home as soon as possible.
He also is examining possibilities, including a stemcell transplant in Panama. His application has been accepted, but the deal - which would cost in the neighbourhood of $40,000 - still has to be finalized.
"They don't promise anything because it's all based on individual results, but they have a lot of very positive results coming out of there," Nelson says.
"A great result would be that the pain is eliminated.
A great result would be I get bowel and bladder control. A super result would be getting my legs going again so I can get upright and cause some havoc around the city like I have the last 56 years."
After graduating from Martin Collegiate, Nelson played six games of basketball a week, splitting his time between a junior team and two senior squads in the city.
One of his teammates on a senior team was Craig Chamberlin, who was hired to coach the U of R men's team in the 1980-81 season.
Even though Nelson had been out of high school for five years, Chamberlin asked him if he wanted to play for the Cougars - and the 6-foot-5 forward said he would give it a try.
By the time he completed his five seasons of eligibility - and after playing one season for Wes Stevenson and three for Ken Murray - Nelson was the U of R's all-time leading scorer with 1,422 points in 79 games.
"And I'm still the leading rebounder (with an average of 9.2 per game), too," Nelson says, before adding with a laugh: "Probably lead in turnovers, too."
His scoring record fell on Feb. 4, 2011, when Jeff Lukomski surpassed Nelson's mark. ("He played 25 more games than me!" Nelson says with mock indignation.)
Nelson graduated from the U of R in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in education and minors in health and history. After working as a substitute teacher for a year, he embarked on a pro basketball career that included stops in Australia, Germany and Austria.
After he and his then-wife, Eileen, returned to Regina in 1991 to settle down, Nelson started working for the provincial government - a job he has held for the past 20 years.
The last six months, however, have been a trial.
After initially feeling pain in his back on Canada Day 2013, Nelson visited a chiropractor who ordered an MRI.
The test showed spots on Nelson's T7 vertebra, which also appeared to be collapsing. As well, the T6 and T8 vertebrae were damaged.
Initial fears of myeloma and lymphoma were ruled out by a bone marrow biopsy, blood work and urine work. After a few more months of tests, pain and uncertainty, a neurosurgeon recommended the insertion of two titanium rods and 12 screws to stabilize the collapsing vertebrae.
The seven-hour procedure was done Nov. 27 - and Nelson awoke without any feeling in his lower body and searing pain across his shoulder blades. Burning pain throughout his back soon followed.
"This whole thing has been torture," Nelson says, his voice breaking with emotion. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. This has just been so debilitating, it's crazy."
The pain has moved down his body of late - it's now centralized more in his buttocks and the backs of his legs - and he is rediscovering muscles in his abdomen and back that previously had been dormant. As Nelson puts it: "I'm healing inside-out."
But it's all still foreign to a man who hadn't had any back issues before the first twinges of pain.
"They still don't know what's the matter with me (in terms of the spotted vertebrae)," Nelson says. "I've had three bone marrow biopsies and I've had tests and tests and tests. They've sent samples all over Western Canada and they still don't know what has caused this. But they do think it has stopped."
That's small consolation, however. And that's why Nelson is examining his options.
Three weeks after moving into Wascana Rehab, Nelson made contact with operators of a Calgary-based stem-cell therapy program, but his case didn't fit their requirements.
Then he discovered the program in Panama - and he's optimistic it will be his deliverance.
"In my mind, it would be a woulda-coulda-shoulda thing," Nelson says when asked why he wants to try the process. "What if I wouldn't have tried? I believe it's going to happen. I want this so badly, it has got to happen. I'm not going to end this way."
Stem cells would be injected into the injured area and, in an ideal world, would take the form of the damaged cells in Nelson's back.
He's well aware that the procedure may not help him walk again, but he's willing to take the chance.
"If I go to Panama to try and I get rid of the pain and I get the bowel care under control but I don't get the legs, I'd be fine," Nelson says.
"The pain is so intrusive that it affects my daily goings-on. If I could just live in this chair without pain, I'd be rolling around like crazy."
A number of people in Regina have banded together to help Nelson raise money for the trip and for other costs he may face, from making his home wheelchairaccessible to putting hand controls in his car to private rehabilitation.
One of the fundraising ideas is a steak night, which is to be held Aug. 27 at Original Joe's.
Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased at the restaurant's location at the Golden Mile Shopping Centre. Details are available from Nancy at [phone redacted].
As well, a website (http://www.gofundme.com/Glen-Nelsonwillnevergiveup) has been set up to accept donations.
"Every one of us has a connection to Glen, whether it's through basketball or friendship," Ray Jacoby, who played senior ball with Nelson, says of the group. "He's a really nice guy, a wonderful person with an incredible sense of optimism. "When something like this happens - which is a tragedy - he's one of those guys you just want to step up and help."
Nelson can't say enough about the support he has received, both financially and morally. It has buoyed his spirits and his eagerness to keep fighting.
"People come in and say, 'what can we do?' I say, 'just you being here and your energy and your positiveness has given me strength,'" says
Nelson, who goes through three rehab sessions a day, five days a week.
"That's what is going to help me - everybody's energy and my own energy. I'm really grumpy and I just refuse to give in."
Nelson's daughters Alexis (who attends Montana State University-Northern) and Katie (who's about to head off to Ohio University) are pursuing volleyball careers in the U.S. Glen is vowing to walk into the gym at Ohio to watch Katie play - a mindset that reflects his focus on healing himself completely.
"I don't know if that's realistic or not, but that's the mindset I'm taking," he says. "That's the way I've always gone about things - and I've always gotten my way.
"If I put my mind to it, I've always been successful at what I do, whether at work or athletically. You've got to stay focused on the target."
However, Nelson's focus has been affected over the past eight months by health issues concerning other family members.
Two weeks after Nelson's operation, his stepson was diagnosed with cancer. The young man, whom Nelson declines to name, had surgery and was recently given a clean bill of health.
As well, Nelson's spouse, Maureen Sebastian, is fighting an ongoing battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Nelson admits he has had "some dark times" since Nov. 27, asking himself and others why he has had to go through the ordeal with his back. The answer he has come up with pertains more to those around him than to himself.
"I really think it's for people to reflect on their own situation," Nelson says. "If it happens to me, it could happen to anybody."
That said, his situation has also convinced Nelson - a man who admittedly went "hell bent for leather" all the time - to take a step back and enjoy every day.
"When I'm walking again and I'm golfing, I'm not going to keep a scorecard," he says. "I'm going to play in my bare feet and I'm going to hit any club I want any time I want and I'm not going to care.
"People have got to understand to enjoy life. It's just too short."
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