On September 10, 2001, 18-year-old Chris Wolff was in New York City visiting family. That evening, while crossing the Verrazano Bridge on the way to Staten Island, his grandfather pointed to the World Trade Center and told him, “Those are the twin towers and we’re gonna have breakfast over there tomorrow morning.”
The next morning, Chris’ grandfather overslept, so the family left later than expected. They were boarding the Staten Island Ferry at 8:46 a.m. when they saw American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower.
“It looked like a movie production,” Chris recalls. “I thought that’s what it was, for a few seconds, there was no other reason to think otherwise.”
When the second plane hit, everyone knew something far more serious was happening. “My first call was to my dad, my second call was to my mom, and my third call was to my recruiter. I was enrolled in the military October 10, 2001.”
Chris joined the Air Force, became an aerospace maintenance craftsman—“my main job and responsibility was to confirm the aircraft was fit for flying”—and deployed three times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan.
About a month after returning from Afghanistan in October 2008, Chris went to the hospital because he was “feeling disoriented and unable to stand up straight.” He was sent home with nausea medication. The following day, his life took a drastic turn.
“I woke up, I tried standing up, and I fell down,” he recalls. “I was paralyzed.” The diagnosis: acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system.
“It attacked my spinal cord and created 42 lesions in the brain,” Chris says. “They put me in a medically induced coma and threw everything at me. They ended up doing plasmapheresis [a process similar to kidney dialysis] and within 24 hours of my last treatment, all 42 lesions were gone. I woke up in an ambulance and asked, ‘Have we made it to the hospital yet?’ They told me I’d been in the hospital for 33 days and was headed to rehab.”
“I spent a significant amount of time in the rehab hospital,” Chris continued. “They classified me as a C-4 quadriplegic.”
The medical prognosis was grim. Chris’ doctor told him he would never breathe, eat, walk, or do anything on his own again. “That really hit me hard, the idea that I’m gonna be a burden.”
Confined to a headrest-driven power wheelchair, Chris underwent a variety of treatments including electromyostimulation, a process that stimulates muscles using electric impulses.
“They wanted me to go to a room with a Nintendo Wii and play the bowling game to improve my range of motion,” Chris recalled. “I was determined not to live up to the prognosis, so I went to the room next door, which was the gym. I had an attendant help me strap my arms into an arm-press machine. I would move it maybe just a hair every single day, but every day I would move it just a little bit further.”
“I got my physical strength back. They were doing electrolysis and muscle control movement on my lower body. They put me in braces, I was walking on a treadmill—I was able to actually stand up and walk with forearm crutches. I was a C-4 and now I’m classified as a T-12 paraplegic.”
In other words, Chris went from one of the most severe types of spinal cord injury to a far more modest classification. But where did he find the strength to push himself so hard?
“When I was a kid, my dad taught me that the only thing that’s gonna change who you are is you. He had to fight through some disabilities, and he instilled drive and determination in me.”
Chris and his wife Kellie are currently living in Colorado and expecting their second child in October 2015. Medically retired from the Air Force since March 28, 2012, he has since become involved in Team Semper Fi and Team America’s Fund. In September 2015, he attended the first-ever Semper Fi Fund / U.S. Olympic Committee Military Program Multi-Sport Endurance Camp. He’s looking forward to participating in a nine-week program in January 2016 run by retired NFL linebacker David Vobora, founder of the Adaptive Training Foundation. “My goal is to be able to walk out of David’s gym using just a cane, not my forearm crutches.”
Chris isn’t done driving himself forward, though. Over the next five years, he hopes to complete a marathon—and spend a minimum of one-third of that marathon propelling himself under his own power as opposed to being in a wheelchair.
“The one thing I think the public need to understand is that tough times don’t last, but tough people do,” Chris says, echoing what is undoubtedly a personal mantra. “Tough is the situation, not the outcome.”