Christian Arteaga takes a step in the EksoNR exoskeleton. Then another. With a rhythm established, he and physical therapist Anna Schaffart are off walking through the halls of the Lied Life Center. The conversation is kept light and casual, misrepresentative of the gravity of what is happening.
“Given your type of injury and that we’re not too far removed from when it happened, there’s a lot of possibility for how much mobility you might get back.” They continue walking and the conversation shifts to a discussion of the assistive home devices that can be beneficial after Christian returns home to California. Of course, there are many unknowns. The devices that may be helpful for Christian today may be rendered unnecessary after gains made from six weeks’ worth of intensive therapies.
At this moment, Christian is faced with a series of crossroads about what he wants his life to look like. He is convicted in the knowledge that regardless of the extent of the gains he might make during his recovery journey, his character and determined work ethic remain uninjured.
“I grew up near Long Beach, California,” says Christian. He explored nearly every activity available to him in Southern California—hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, honing his skills on the board at skate parks, and even doing some sidewalk guitar performances—not because he had to support himself, simply because he enjoyed playing for the crowds.
When it came time for college, Christian had his sights set on the medical field. “At first,” he says, “I thought about becoming a physician’s assistant and decided to pursue biomedical engineering. However, my grades were not what I wanted them to be. I took some time off from school, dabbled in the insurance industry for some time, and then went back to school, focused.”
A change of major to molecular biology led to a reoriented pursuit of his medical field goals but as millions of American students encounter, Christian worried about student loans and how to pay for his education.
Some friends suggested he pursue an Air Force ROTC track that could help pay for school. As he became more deeply involved in the program, Christian’s interest in an Air Force career path increased. In early 2023, he graduated from training to become a combat systems officer. “If you’ve seen ‘Top Gun,'” Christian says, “I trained for a similar position that the character Goose had in the movie.”
To celebrate his graduation, Christian and his fellow graduates rented a boat and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico. Coming to anchor, Christian jumped into the water. Misjudging the shallowness of the water, he landed hard on the sandy bottom and immediately suffered an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury.
After an initial hospitalization, Christian transferred to Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago, Illinois. While there, Christian was struck by the perspective offered by spinal cord injury mentors. “I spoke with individuals who had very similar injuries to mine. Some of them were fully independent in their routines and daily lives within six months post-injury. I started to form the mindset that if they could do it, so could I.”
When coming to QLI in July 2023, Christian devised a clear goal with which to put all his work and effort behind. “I just want to fully be able to live on my own. The plan is to find an apartment back in Long Beach. I’ve got a lot of family and support out there” Christian’s team set a plan to get him to that goal.
“One of Christian’s significant strengths is his problem-solving skills,” says Anna. “When he first arrived on campus, I was struck by the potential he showed. Due to his type of injury, it is impossible to predict exactly where the ceiling is at in terms of what he can regain and accomplish, and that’s very exciting.”
Initially, Christian transferred via a mechanical lift from his chair, a piece of therapy equipment, or his bed. Arm strengthening opportunities were incorporated throughout his day, regardless of the therapeutic session. With occupational therapist Sara Waid, he’d spend time utilizing the Xcite machine, which provides electrical stimulation through attached nodes. With the nodes placed around the hands, each pulse allows the hand to open, and then close. In some physical therapy sessions, Christian would work on catching and passing a medicine ball. These and more gave Christian crucial repetitions throughout the day.
At a quick pace, he was able to transition to transferring independently with the use of a slide board—a long, thin board placed underneath the legs to allow individuals to slide from one seat to another, or their chair to a bed, etc. He soon progressed to pop-over transfers, lifting himself from his chair and onto another surface. Each step is a giant leap toward his goal of living independently in Long Beach.
“There’s a lot of teamwork and collaboration within our sessions,” says Anna. “I can provide strategies for him to test out with transfers, and we work through them together. Christian may continue the work on his own time, figuring out what works for him and what doesn’t.”
As Christian has an incomplete injury, there is the possibility of regaining the ability to walk again. Sessions ambulating in the EksoNR exoskeleton with Anna brings many benefits. The repetition of the movement not only helps to facilitate the possible return of motor function, but the sheer movement of Christian’s legs prompted by the device allows for increased blood flow throughout his lower limbs and promotes blood pressure regulation.
Being caught between possibilities of walking or not walking again doesn’t bother Christian. As for his return to Long Beach, Christian is very practical when considering his options. He will attend therapies closer to home, continuing to build his strength. Already, he has been pursuing career paths that involve consulting or public speaking.
His attitude and capability throughout his recovery simply is, as Christian says, “Just who I am. I keep pushing because real life doesn’t stop for me. There will always be new ways for me to do things, I just need to find them. This whole journey has been about independence and self-preservation, and QLI has given me the confidence and dignity to not have to be overly worried about what life will be like. I know I can go out there and do what needs to be done.”