Ricky Chang was like every other ordinary suburban kid. That is, he lived a relatively simple, normal life. Growing up in Manassas, Virginia, he had a group of close knit friends, was heavily active in the BMX biking community and rode frequently with his friends at skate parks.
But weeks after graduating from high school in 2008 he suffered from a life-altering event that would rob him of his independence -- that crucial moment in life when most kids his age were on a path to self-guidance.
I remember too much about it.
July 19th 2008 was the day. "I remember too much about it," Ricky hesitantly laughs. "I was wearing a navy blue shirt, new Van Homan Orchid shoes, had a little hemp bracelet that a friend made for me...you know, all these useless details." After getting out of work he met up with a group friends at the Osborne Skate Park and told them about another location at Vint Hill Farms Station where he saw two rails that he wanted to test his bike grinding skills on.
Ricky talks further about the incident in detail.
After spending a week in an ICU (intensive care unit) room at a Fairfax, VA hospital, Ricky was transported to Shepherd Center, a spinal cord & brain injury rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Georgia. This is where he was re-taught all the skills most humans learn at an early age: re-learning how to eat, drink, breathe and talk. Since then he has returned to his parent's home in Manassas where he and his mother make the 1+ hour trek to Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland for his rehab and physical therapy sessions.
Ricky is a C4/C5 complete spinal cord injury ASIA A patient. There's a severance of the high-clavicle nerves and low-clavicle nerves (loss of control within parts of the hands, arms, trunk and legs). But keeping active and continuing physical rehabilitation exercises are key. During his immediate time at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ricky regained the use of his left bicep and shoulder. Eventually he regained control of his right arm 8 months later after the accident. As he proudly demonstrated during the interview, "now I can do this little jig."
Confined to a life in a wheelchair, things changed for Ricky in the Fall of 2016. His mother read about a clinical trial using a robotic exoskeleton suit called Indego for spinal cord injury patients. The trial would give quadriplegics and tetraplegics the "ability" to walk again. It was the first time Ricky would walk 8 years after his accident.
The weirdest thing is looking down at your feet and seeing your feet make that motion again...looking down and being like, 'Oh, yeah. That's what my feet used to do.'
The clinical trial was held at Sheltering Arms in Richmond, Virginia. Here Ricky gets strapped into the device, which only weighs 26 pounds and without a bulky upper torso component. He uses a walker due to the lack of control in his trunk support but walked around the building facility twice on the day I visited him.
Amber Walter, Ricky's physical therapist, talked about the emotional and physical therapy the device gives to her patients. It was the same case with Ricky. There are exoskeleton devices being made that will use brain signal waves to "bridge" contact with the severed nerve endings and then move the device and body limb. In the simplest terms, you can think of a movement and the exoskeleton device will move that body part for you.
Spending a day with Ricky and you'll instantly notice his extroverted personality and his penchant for witty jokes. He's very vocal about his condition and talks openly about being a quadriplegic. It's no surprise that his photo shared to Reddit and subsequent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread generated so much interest with 126k upvotes and over 2000 comments. Ricky dealt with all the questions and trolls alike. Around the time of its posting, it shot up to number seven of all time voted in the subreddit r/pics.
Outside of the medical rehab and therapy sessions, Ricky's preparing for the next step in his life. And it's an exciting time for "The Rickles." He just started college for the first time and has plans to study physics. Ricky hopes to combine his passion for science and space with his love for comedy. He also hosts a podcast called "Ber" with his friend and a quick glance at his Instagram reveals all those passions and interests are still at the forefront.
A telescope gift from a close friend. Ricky is currently studying physics and has an interest in everything space related.
There's a campaign website to help Ricky and his family cover the costs for his rehabilitation.