The dream took hold when Ignacio Montoya was six-years-old and leaving his native Cuba, leaving behind his family, language, and culture. It happened right there on the Boeing airplane carrying he and his father to the United States.
“I felt it as clearly as I’ve ever felt anything – I needed to become a pilot, I needed to fly, so that I could go back to visit my family,” says Montoya, whose mother had died of leukemia two years earlier. “All of my relatives were crying there at the airport – this was a very traumatic time for a child. But I remember it clearly, in my little kid’s mind, when my dream was born.”
It stayed with him. Already a student at Georgia State University, in 2009 he enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology and joined the Air Force ROTC. In February 2012, he earned a slot for pilot training. He had one year left of college, then he was going to take off.
“I was on track to become the best U.S. fighter pilot ever,” Montoya said.
Then his life took a sharp turn. In December 2012, while driving his motorcycle, a minivan made an illegal turn in front of him. He woke up at Shepherd Center in Atlanta with multiple injuries, including spinal cord damage that left Montoya in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. One dream vanished, and another took its place.
“That accident transformed my dreams, changed my passions,” Montoya says. “Now, my goal is to get into the healthcare industry, to get out of this wheelchair, and if it’s God’s will, to voluntarily walk again.”
Helping Montoya pursue his new dream of assisting other spinal cord injury patients (and, potentially, to walk again) is the vaunted Master of Biomedical Innovation and Development (MBID) Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which will graduate 34 students in its fifth cohort on July 26, 2018.
Since the intensive one-year professional master’s program was launched in 2013 (under the leadership of Sathya Gourisankar, as part of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University) it has prepared graduates to pursue and advance their careers in the expansive and multi-disciplinary field of biomedical engineering devices and technology.
This summer’s graduating class will give the program 123 alums since its inception, but for Montoya, graduation will be particularly sweet.
“We are thrilled to designate Ignacio as our 100th program graduate and ambassador,” says Gourisankar, professor of the practice. “He has displayed stellar work ethic, commitment, passion, and perseverance against all kinds of adversities in his life, while relentlessly pursuing his passions. I am very proud of this young man.”
In five years, Gourisankar and his fellow faculty members have worked with a diverse range of students from different backgrounds. Among the 123 graduates so far have been 56 men and 67 women, 97 U.S. residents, and 27 international students.
“The graduates have almost exclusively been placed in medical device industries, covering all functions of development, from research through regulatory, clinicals, quality control, manufacturing, business development, and marketing,” Gourisankar says.
Graduates of the Biomedical Innovation and Development (MBID) program have moved into careers with some medical device industry leaders, such as J&J, Abbott, Edwards Life Sciences, and Stryker, as well as mid-size and smaller companies.
In contrast to textbook learning, students are exposed to real-world business practices, thanks to a team of multi-disciplined faculty from industry, clinical practice, and entrepreneurship, who teach career relevant courses, “which are of high value to both the companies hiring as well as the students in getting their foot in the door, into the right career path and company of choice,” says Gourisankar.
Students in each cohort spend three semesters (fall, spring, and summer), taking 11 courses (nine mandatory, and two are electives from within graduate schools across Georgia Tech). They also participate in a team-based clinical project, in which they identify a major unmet need and take an idea through pre-clinical development.
“It’s all part of the training to understand the challenges involved in life cycle medical device development,” Gourisankar says.
Meeting the Challenge
Part of the challenge, of course, is addressing unmet clinical needs. This is something Montoya has taken to heart since the accident. He is determined to go as far as his body and mind will allow him, physically and mentally, addressing the hurdles standing in the way of spinal cord injury patients.
“After the accident, the way I saw it, if I cannot walk, I cannot exercise my body, so it’s crucial that I exercise my mind,” Montoya says. “I knew that I had to continue my education and pursue a master’s degree.”
So he talked to his mentor and roommate, Ross Mason.
Mason, an international businessman and health care entrepreneur, had gone to Georgia Tech, graduating with a degree in industrial engineering in 1992. Like Montoya, he was a hard charger, and had also been paralyzed – the result of a biking accident while training for iron man competition. They met through mutual connections and Mason was immediately impressed with Montoya. “He’s the most tenacious person on the face of the Earth,” says Mason, who invited Montoya to move in with him, fostering that tenacity, linking Montoya up with necessary services and influential people.
One of the most important connections Montoya made through Mason was Bob Guldberg, executive director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech.
“Ross sent me Ignacio’s resume and gave me a synopsis of his inspiring story and journey,” Guldberg says. “Ignacio’s accident was undoubtedly tragic, but what amazed me about him is how forward thinking he is about his life. He wanted to better prepare himself for a future in business innovation directed towards helping those with disabilities overcome their limitations and achieve a better quality of life.”
Back to School
Guldberg wrote a letter of support for Montoya, saying, “this is a highly motivated, intelligent young man with a plan, who I believe would not only thrive in the Georgia Tech MBID program, but enrich it with his passion, unique perspective, and talents.”
Gourisankar agreed with Guldberg and his estimation of Montoya has only increased over the past year.
“Quite simply, he is a role model,” the professor says. “I consider it one of my life’s greatest blessings to have had the opportunity to mentor him.”
Montoya, who carries a 4.0 GPA, is counting on making those contributions, for others and for himself.
“I want to go a thousand miles an hour again,” he says. He’d like to develop a state-of-the-art gait training center for patients making the transition out of the wheelchair – something he intends to do some day, particularly after meeting Wise Young, the renowned physician and researcher from Rutgers University who has conducted multiple clinical trials in China using stem cells and intensive physical therapy to move patients with complete spinal cord injuries from wheelchairs back onto their feet.
“They were walking again,” Montoya exclaims.
He’d been researching Young since 2014, had kept abreast of the developments in the China trials – 75 percent of the participating patients were walking again, using rolling walkers.
“This totally blew my mind,” says Montoya, who shared the information with Mason, whose interest in his own recovery exploded. “I think he had a spiritual awakening. If I’m going a thousand miles an hour, Ross is now going a million.”
Both men, now avidly following Young’s research, expect to leave their chairs eventually.
One of the greatest lessons Montoya has learned in the last five years, is how to accept assistance with a sense of grace. Like his best friend, Mason, Montoya always had a strong independent streak.
When he came out of his coma following the accident, at the Shepherd Center, Montoya grappled with everything he’d just heard about his condition.
“I woke up with the mentality of, ‘I am going to be a USAF pilot,’ and had no idea my life had been completely changed,” he says. “I panicked.”
He’d always been extremely goal oriented, wound tight that way, living in a world of personal blueprints and deadlines. Now clinicians wanted to talk to him about physical therapy, speech therapy. Nothing was making sense.
Soon, he was maneuvering a wheelchair that he was barely used to along Atlanta sidewalks, which were not built for wheelchairs. He was on his way to Georgia State, worried that he was going to lose his scholarship, worried that he’d miss graduation, worried about everything he’d just learned about the course his life was now taking.
And he realized very quickly on that six mile journey that, to a wheelchair user, Atlanta’s sidewalks are a gauntlet.
“They are horrible, the worst,” Montoya says. “I hit a crack in the sidewalk and my chair tilted on two wheels. My phone fell to the ground, my wallet with 20 bucks in it, all my ID. And I was about to fall out of the chair when here comes this individual, a homeless person I think. He grabs my wallet, my phone, gives them to me, helps get me back on track. I was speechless.”
At Georgia State, the dean’s office talked him off the proverbial ledge. Worried because he’d lost the Air Force scholarship (medically disqualified) and thought his HOPE Scholarship was out the window, he was still anxious. But the dean showed him three scholarships that he qualified for, and the dean’s secretary later escorted him to a MARTA bus stop for the trip back to Shepherd Center.
“That’s how I discovered that wheelchairs can board MARTA buses,” Montoya says.
Getting With the Program
That epic road trip was kind of an awakening for him. Besides serving as a wheels-on demonstration of the inaccessibility of the built environment, it taught Montoya about depending on other people.
“I’m not a genius, but I have tools and resources that have been put in front of me, I have people in my life that I depend on,” he says. “One of the most important things I learned is you never ever know who you will need a hand from in life. It’s so important to keep doors open and make connections. That’s also something I’ve learned in the MBID program, from the director of the program to the students. You never know who will come to your side. I’ve been lucky that way.”
The degree he’ll be granted on July 26 had little to do with luck, however.
“He’s demonstrated to all of us, faculty and students, the value of the old adage, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going,’” Gourisankar says. “I have no doubt that he’ll make impactful contributions in his life post MBID.”
In addition to recognition of the ceremonial 100th graduate, the MBID graduation weekend will feature a number of special events for students and their families. On Thursday (July 26, 2018), students will undertake their final exam – team presentations of bench-to-bedside development of medical devices. Then on Friday (July 27, 2018) is the family social event wherein the sutdent families will arrive from far and near to celebrate the graduation.
Then, Gourisankar and his team will jump into a new year of MBID. Fall orientation for the next class is August 17, 18.
Thinking back over the program’s first five years and his role as the founding director, Gourisankar recalls the advice he received from the BME chair at the time the program was launched.
“I was told to run MBID as if it were my start-up company, and given freedom to build a program that will best serve the needs of the medical industry,” Gourisankar says. “Indeed, this is exactly how we’ve operated to date, as a start-up venture for training the future leaders of the medical device industry. So far, the outcomes have been stellar and even exceeded our expectations in terms of enrollment, placement, and industry rapport.”