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Cycling star puts childhood stroke in the spotlight

(Photo : Michael Sametz, at right, on the podium in Rio)

Michael Sametz is an incredibly accomplished young man with a smile that lights up a room.

He’s a rising star in competitive cycling. He was a medallist in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. And he is a business and kinesiology student at the University of Calgary with long-term dreams of a career in sports management.

Michael, 20, is also a young Canadian with cerebral palsy, a condition that resulted from a stroke in his developing brain at least two months before he was born.

“Most kids with perinatal stroke (a stroke that happens before or just after birth) have cerebral palsy,” says Calgary pediatric stroke neurologist Dr. Adam Kirton, one of a few experts in this field in Canada. “Just like in adults, the stroke causes weakness on one side of the body. That’s called hemiparetic or hemiplegic cerebral palsy.”

There are more than 10,000 children in Canada living with the effects of stroke, and about 1,000 of those kids are in Alberta.

Dr. Kirton, a researcher with the HSF Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery, is pioneering new approaches to improve stroke recovery in children.

More than six years ago, Dr. Kirton and his team established a summer camp for kids with stroke – and Michael was among the first participants.

The annual two-week camp at Alberta Children’s Hospital brings together kids to receive intensive therapy, play sports and games, play instruments, cook and make new friends.

“It was great,” says Michael. “You find out a lot more people are dealing with the same frustrations as you are – like how to hold the Xbox remote when your right thumb doesn’t have the dexterity you need.

“You learn your challenges are not abnormal. There is a connection and you can work through things together. That’s where things become humorous.” Years later, Michael remains connected to four of the friends he made at camp.

The camp also allows researchers to test new approaches to rehabilitation, including brain stimulation combined with therapy to strengthen arm movement. After two weeks at camp, Michael said he “noticed more improvement and confidence with my right side,” although he emphasizes he always has to work at it.

Today, as a competitive cyclist, Michael trains two to three hours a day, seven days a week. He began to cycle at age 12, started racing at 14, and two-and-a-half years ago he joined the national para-cycling team.

Despite three international medals, extensive media coverage of his achievements, honours from the City of Calgary, a rigorous training schedule and academic workload, Michael likes to find time to reconnect with Dr. Kirton. On this day, Michael checks out a new robot recently installed at Alberta Children’s Hospital that helps map the brains of young stroke patients to determine how therapy boosts activity in certain areas.

“It’s always really interesting to see what they’re doing now,” Michael says. “I’m impressed by advances in the field.”

“Dr. Kirton is great. I came back to see him in August with a bunch of questions.”

For Dr. Kirton, the admiration is mutual. “I was hoping to convince Mike to pursue a career in neuroscience.” But there’s no question that Michael will go far in whatever direction he chooses.

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