SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – A split second or an inch or two in another direction and the spinal cord injury wouldn’t have happened. Danny Christiana, a Slippery Rock University business major, was paralyzed by a dirt bike accident in his backyard March 21, 2009, while showing his parents his latest moves.
“I had found a new jump in the yard with wet dirt,” he said. “My bike hit the jump and threw me over the handlebar. I would have been OK, but the bike hit me on the back of the neck and snapped my C-5 vertebrae. I woke up for a split second. My mom looked at me and said, ‘Are you ok?’ All I could say was, ‘Mom, I can’t move anything.’”
Taken to a Pittsburgh hospital, doctors told the family he would never be able to breathe on his own or move any of his extremities. But they were wrong. Thanks to a stem cell procedure he received outside the U.S., willpower, and a University that embraces students regardless of their challenges, Christiana is doing better than expected during his third semester at SRU.
Christiana, who grew up in Slippery Rock and was injured during his senior year in high school, takes a full academic load and aspires to a career in robotics or engineering. He reads textbooks online, eats in the dining hall and keeps up with social networking. Christiana said he plans to take another big step later this semester when he begins adapted horseback riding lessons at SRU’s Storm Harbor Equestrian Center. He will use a saddle equipped with a tall back and arms called an “independence saddle.” The center has a wheelchair lift.
“I am not scared. I have learned to overcome,” he said. “I have a strong will. You don’t change as a person because of an accident. I want to have friends. I want to have relationships.”
Courtney Gramlich, equestrian center director, said the goal is to get everyone riding with the least amount of assistance possible. “Our equine-assisted activity program brings out the best in the riders,” she said. “They are able to do something they enjoy while receiving some therapeutic benefits by just being on the back of the horse.”
A quadriplegic, Christiana has a full-time assistant, registered nurse Michelle Butler, who attends classes with him and helps with his therapy. Their routine begins early. She arrives at his parents’ house in Slippery Rock by 6:30 a.m. She helps him shower and dress and drives him to campus in a customized van. They usually stop at Sheetz for a coffee and egg sandwich before Christiana’s first class at Vincent Science Center.
Butler takes notes for Christiana and helps him eat since he has limited use of his hands. He takes a break from noon to 1 p.m. and has afternoon classes in Advanced Technology and Science Hall and Spotts World Culture Building. He also frequents Bailey Library and the University Union during school days.
“Daniel does handle life well given the situation he faces daily,” Butler said. “He is truly remarkable.”
Christiana said he is so grateful for his professors, especially Neil Cosgrove, SRU professor of English, who has him in a class and said his student is coming along.
“He seems strongly committed to completing college, consistently submitting his writing assignments on time and showing up for class, even when the weather has been nasty,” Cosgrove said. “When we do group work, he clearly engages with his classmates and has volunteered responses during class discussions. I’m glad Daniel enjoys the class, and at this point I have no reason to believe he will not do well in the course.”
Christiana said he enrolled in SRU because it is a local university and he “knew a lot of people would be here to help.” Paul Christiana, his uncle, is a locksmith at the University.
Christiana said the hardest aspect of being a quadriplegic is not being able to use his fingers. The fact that he can move his wrists and arms at all is attributed in part to several stem cell treatments that Christiana had in the Dominican Republic, since the procedure is illegal in the U.S. Stem cell treatment involves transplanting human embryonic stem cells into a patient in an attempt to restore spinal cord or brain function.
After the accident and two months at a Pittsburgh hospital, Christiana under went four months of spinal rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga. He regained minimal movement and the ability to breathe on his own. Christiana received the first of several stem cell procedures last Sept. 24. After one treatment, Christiana said he regained significant movement of his arms and hands and can feel slight pressure and sensation in his legs.
“I can feel my body inside with all my bones throughout,” he said.
A huge obstacle for his family is the cost of treatment. Since stem cell treatment is not allowed in the U.S., the procedure is not covered by insurance. Christiana said his aunt and uncle took a home equity loan to cover the majority of the $35,000 cost, and his parents took a personal loan. Future stem cell treatment is expected to cost up to $100,000.
“It’s hard, but really what I want is to get my hands back,” Christiana said. “I don’t care about my legs; the chair is not the thing that bothers me, it’s that I can’t use my hands.”
Linda Quidone, SRU director of the Office of Students with Disabilities, said SRU has 560 students with a disability, including emotional, learning, physical, vision and hearing disability. More than 200 SRU students volunteer to take notes in classes to help students with disabilities, she said.
SRU provided a Dragon Naturally Speaking computer for Christiana to use. It is a computer that recognizes voice. Christiana speaks into the unit and his words appear on the screen. He is also able to send e-mail.
“We provide reasonable accommodations such as extended time for tests and allowing students with disabilities to take tests in a separate room,” Quidone said. “We have a whole bunch of volunteers, many from the Honors Program. Making friends is hard when you have a disability, so all of our students should make the attempt.”
SRU students have taken up Danny’s cause. The SRU chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity launched a “Do It For Danny” campaign. The group accepted contributions to help with medical expenses during a Super Bowl party in the University Union, said Shane Ellis, a safety and environmental management major from Honesdale and the president of the fraternity.
“We will be having a few other events this semester to hopefully help Danny,” Ellis said. “I wish the first event went better, but we are keeping Danny in mind.”
Despite the accident, Christiana said he still loves dirt bikes. He attends races and is involved in customizing a golf cart that he hopes to drive someday. “I love dirt bikes and have been riding since I was 8 years old,” he said. “It has been a passion of mine and will continue to be.”
Christiana said he feels depressed at times, but is awed by the support he receives from SRU. “I am so grateful for everything,” he said.
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