Dylan Cain's progress after stem cell infusion 2
Dylan Cain take a short break from hurling balls out of his ball pit on Thursday. (Casey Campbell | Gazette-Times ) Casey Campbell

Dylan Cain is immersed up to his neck in 1,000 bright blue, red and yellow plastic balls. His laughter rolls all the way up from his toes, and then - wham! - a blazingly fast left hand fires one of the balls at an intruding reporter.

Then another ... and another ... all accompanied by huge grins, giggles and a string of words.

That's certainly not unusual for a 4½-year-old, but Dylan isn't your typical preschooler.

Oxygen-deprived at birth and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Dylan cannot walk on his own and has limited vision. A few months ago, his vocabulary was limited to a half-dozen words, including "dada."

He still wears a diaper.

But in late May, Dylan and his parents, Mark and Jinger Cain, traveled to the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., where Dylan was infused with millions of stem cells that had been harvested from his own umbilical cord blood. Stem cells have the ability to divide and create other cells like themselves or replace damaged cells.

The Cains had "banked" Dylan's cord blood at birth with a company in the Midwest. Dylan was chosen to be included in the university's ongoing stem cell research program, a $19,000 expense that was funded in part by members of the community, including the Oregon State Beavers women's volleyball team.

"We first noticed his speech improvement when I asked him if he wanted to get up out of bed," Jinger Cain said. "He answered, 'Ah, yeah,' for the first time. Then, the last few weeks, he started saying, 'I D.' He knows he's Dylan."

He also quickly spurts out "Tigger" or "Eeyore" when his favorite Winnie-the-Pooh toys are flashed in front of him.

And, Jinger added, he can now find the letter "D" on a toy truck without any assistance.

"His cognitive skills have definitely improved," Jinger said. "He now repeats nearly anything we ask him to say. That never happened before. It seems like his vision has improved as well."

He also has shown progress walking along a physical therapy bench that has been fitted with bars he can grab to help support his weight.

Dylan has participated in intensive therapy for much of his life, and the Cains said in the past they measured successes in minute increments. His current advances seem huge, even though the staff at Duke University said the Cains should not expect to see any improvement for at least six months, perhaps a year.

The Cains say they have seen considerable improvement in Dylan's speech, cognitive skills, vision and leg movement.

"He used to drag his right leg," Jinger said. "Now he can actually stand on it and is moving it when he walks."

A few months ago, Dylan needed help standing up. Now he lifts himself upright, needing help only for balancing.

"These are the largest gains he's made at any time in his life," Mark said. "Usually we see progress in very tiny steps over many months. These are like giant steps."

Dylan will soon embark on another journey. He will have tubes implanted in his ears to relieve pressure so he can spend 90 minutes a day, five days a week in a hyperbaric chamber - think diving bell - at a clinic in Bend. He will breathe pure oxygen that is compressed as though he were diving in deep water.

The process, the Cains hope, will stimulate brain cells that did not receive oxygen at birth.

"The cells aren't dead. The hyperbaric chamber pushes oxygen deep into the cells so they can get blood flowing in them," Jinger said. "Also, the use of a hyperbaric chamber can increase the number of stem cells in the body by as much as eightfold."

The Cains are staying in Bend during the week and say Dylan will need to make at least 120 "dives" before they expect to see any progress. Each session costs $200.

"People will ask us if we would do all of this again," Jinger said. "And the answer is: Absolutely."

To help fund Dylan's treatments, the Cains are selling rubber wristbands for $2. They can be purchased by calling 754-7177. To follow Dylan's progress, visit his website at alittleboysjourney.com.

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