Paralyzed Tech grad tries to help others like him

Ignacio Montoyo (left) gets help from Andre Ajayi preparing him to work out on a "Lokomat," a robot assisted locomotor training orthosis, in Atlanta on Monday August 12th, 2019. He was paralyzed in an accident while a student at Georgia Tech but persevered to get his degree and now works to improve the mobility of the paralyzed. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Ignacio Montoyo (left) gets help from Andre Ajayi preparing him to work out on a "Lokomat," a robot assisted locomotor training orthosis, in Atlanta on Monday August 12th, 2019. He was paralyzed in an accident while a student at Georgia Tech but persevered to get his degree and now works to improve the mobility of the paralyzed. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

INSPIRE ATLANTA: Metro resident works to revolutionize spinal cord injury treatment

Ignacio Montoya has never been one to give up.

Not when he lost his mother to cancer when he was 5.

Not when his family’s dream of relocating to the United States hinged on a 1% chance of winning a visa lottery.

And not when a horrific traffic accident in Gwinnett County left him paralyzed from the chest down at age 22.

Montoya was determined to “find a way forward” after the accident. In his hospital gown, a driving rainstorm and a wheelchair, he rode 4.2 miles from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, where he was in rehab, to Georgia State University, where he was a semester shy of graduation.

He wanted to make sure nothing would interfere with his plans to graduate from GSU with a degree in business administration and to complete an aerospace studies program at Georgia Tech that resulted in his Air Force commission as a fighter pilot.

“I needed to finish what I had started, and that is the approach and mentality I’ve taken ever since,” said Montoya, a native of Camaguey, Cuba, and naturalized U.S. citizen.

Montoya’s family defied the odds, won that lottery and came to America in 1997, a few months before his seventh birthday.

The move was bittersweet. Montoya’s mother had died two years earlier, nine months after being diagnosed with leukemia.

But to this day, Montoya vividly recalls that plane trip to Miami.

Not only did it bring him to his new homeland, but it also instilled in him a “love and need for flight” that continues today.

Montoya thrived once his family settled in Georgia, graduating high school with top honors and moving onto college, the United States Air Force Reserves ROTC at Tech and a 10-year commitment to serving in the military as an officer and fighter pilot after graduation.

“I had my first assignment set up for the first day of active duty and was ready to keep kicking ass and taking names,” he recalled.

But his plans changed on Dec. 4, 2012, when a Gwinnett County motorist made an improper left turn. Her vehicle slammed into Montoya’s motorcycle, leaving the 22-year-old with what police at the scene saw as life-threatening injuries.

Montoya suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury, a collapsed lung, and multiple rib fractures, as well as other complicating injuries.

He spent three months in a coma and woke up to the knowledge that all his life plans had been “ripped up” as the result of an accident he still can’t remember.

Within two weeks, though, Montoya was back rethinking his life. Words that his father spoke to him years earlier kept playing in his mind: “Create your American dream; don’t chase it.”

He began thinking about the millions of patients in this country with spinal cord injuries, and what opportunities did – and didn’t – exist for them, and now for him.

“I decided to find a way using my body to create and test clinical and experimental protocols,” Montoya said. “I started viewing my daily struggle as a military battle, and I would not stop until I’d won this internal neurological war.”

Today, Montoya travels the world, visiting rehab hospitals and outpatient therapy clinics, and talking to renowned scientists and innovators willing to “step outside the box to make nerves regenerate, reconnect and rewire.”

For a year, he led a paralysis recovery center. And he’s now taking over as executive director of a neuro-recovery laboratory called HINRI. The lab’s sole purpose is to change the standard of care for spinal cord injuries, nationwide, he said.

Last December, Montoya graduated with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Tech and a 4.0-grade point average.

And more missions await him.

By his 40th birthday – in 12 years – Montoya hopes he and many others, including his mentor Ross Mason, will be out of their wheelchairs and walking.

“I want to combine stem cell therapies with electrical stimulation and locomotor training to rewire the central nervous system of the human body and help to eliminate the word paralysis from the prognosis of a spinal injury.”

At the end of this biomedical journey, Montoya hopes his accident doesn’t define his life, dreams, or passions.

“I want to be the first formally paralyzed person to reach the edge of space by joining the 100,000 Foot Club, and I want to return to service to this nation through the Department of Defense and apply myself in the intelligence community to help bring light to some very dark places around our world,” he said.

Mason, founder of HINRI and a former chair of the board of the Georgia Department of Community Health, said Montoya is already “on the cutting edge” and changing the standard of care for spinal cord injuries.

“He is unbelievably tenacious,” Mason said. “He will not take ‘No’ for an answer.”

WHAT INSPIRES IGNACIO MONTOYA

Staying positive: "I am a faith-based goal-setter. I always have a to-do list and am always aware of my present while contemplating and planning my future."

Achieving the dream of flight: "Take advantage of every opportunity and waste nothing because the sky is not the limit, it is only my next barrier that I must go through to get to space."

Perspective on his injury: "I see this injury and situation as my personal mission, and, just as I trained hard as an officer to never give up and excel against all obstacles, this is now my approach to life and this injury."

Motivating quote: "For once you have tasted flight, you will f0rever walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return." — Leonardo da Vinci

Childhood hero and friend: Cuban fighter pilot Maj. Orestes Lorenzo, who left Cuba in his Mig-23 fighter bound for the Florida Keys and in search of freedom. Lorenzo spent the next year trying through diplomatic means to gain the release from Cuba of his wife and two sons. When all else failed, the major flew a small airplane back to Cuba, landed on a highway, and rescued them before the military got wind.

Recognized: This year, the Georgia House passed House Resolution 301, recognizing Montoya for his perseverance, strength and hard work in advancing the field of biomedical engineering, especially the treatment of spinal cord injuries.

MORE DETAILS

A day in Montoya’s life

He walks on the first-ever, at-home, robot-assisted locomotor training orthosis that’s suspended and connected to a treadmill, the Hocoma Lokomat. It’s a revolutionary exoskeleton-like device that’s been around for years in various rehab hospitals.

It helps with his gait training, excites his spinal circuitry, increases muscle mass and improves leg circulation, bone density, and cardiometabolic health. It’s historically not been covered by insurance, something Montoya hopes to change.

He walks four hours a day — 1.25 miles per hour — five days a week. He also does 30 minutes each of cardio-respiratory training and range-of-motion exercises. On weekends, he swims two hours at the local YMCA swimming pool. He has also joined the Atlanta Rowing Club to train and race with adaptive rowing.

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