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.”
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