Newly Paralyzed Doctor Embracing Life Post-Injury

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Life transitions happen to all of us, but for Dr. Christian Ostheimer, a newly injured paraplegic from Germany now living in Connecticut, he had to figure out how to get through two life transitions at once — moving to the US and then, within a few weeks of arriving, suffering a spinal cord injury at the same time COVID was just beginning to close the world down. But not only did Dr. Ostheimer survive, he’s thriving thanks in part to his husband but also his impressively strong mindset. Read on to uncover his story of resiliency.

The Big Move

Before moving to the US and his injury in 2020, Dr. Christian Ostheimer, now 38 years old, worked for 7 years as a doctor in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany; a time in his life when he honed his skills professionally and married his husband. Before his injury, he decided to switch gears and begin working in the pharmaceutical industry in Baden-Wuerttemberg and was offered the option to move to the US in 2020. “I was already working in the pharmaceutical industry (at the time of my injury) which in hindsight was a blessing because the job is basically an office job and a lot more suitable for a wheelchair user than working as a doctor in the hospital.”

Dr. Ostheimer had no idea what was on the horizon upon moving to the US – a spinal cord infection, transverse myelitis, which is an infection of the spinal cord caused by either a viral, bacterial and fungal infection and can cause permanent paralysis due to be inflammation of the spinal cord. It all began when he and his husband both got COVID when they were still in Germany and getting ready for the big move to the USA.

And after arriving to the US, Dr. Ostheimer became even more sick. “It was impossible after arriving to get anything from driver’s license to doctors’ appointments due to the shutdown of everything, and it was exactly in that moment that I got more sick, developing severe back pain, weakness in my legs and bowel and bladder dysfunction.” Being a medically trained professional, Dr. Ostheimer had a suspicion of what it was and attempted to go to the ER, but says the ERs were on the verge of collapse.

“Definitely the worst time ever get transverse myelitis,” he says. Fortunately, he found the medical care that he needed and was diagnosed as a T10-11 paraplegic after the infection subsided. “I must say that today, I do wonder whether my outcome would have been different if a diagnosis could have been made and therapy initiated more quickly but certainly the Covid-pandemic did not help with this. “Being a doctor though has helped me a lot to cope, understand, accept and ‘function’ with my disability because having the medical background. I am basically my own doctor,” he says. “Then, because of my medical education, I think I am able to take care of myself and my condition very well, i.e. caring for and maintaining my ‘new body’ and dealing with all the complications and problems that come with paraplegia.”

New Life in a Wheelchair

After rehabilitation and returning to work in the clinical development of cancer drugs, he’s now settled at his home in Connecticut and has been thriving as a wheelchair user. “In hindsight, I am very happy and consider myself lucky to be able to be in the USA because with respect to disability inclusion and accessibility, there’s probably hardly a better and more advanced country to find. This means both inclusion and accessibility at the workplace and also in the private life, which makes life in the wheelchair for me a lot easier than it presumably would have been in Germany.”

He also says people with disabilities tend to be treated differently in the US in a very positive sense, compared to Germany or some other countries. “Disabled people in Germany often have a hard time to be and feel integrated both professionally and socially and not to be treated as some sort of “marginalized outsider”. Having a disability in the USA is one of the most normal things and you never really feel disabled because people in the US really treat you like everyone else or even more, see your handicap not as a disability but rather a different ability which can enable you in many other ways. This has probably many reasons but above all is also a reflection of the American way of life and thinking which in case of disability is in my personal opinion and experience a very positive difference to Germany.”

As for returning to work in the hospital as a paraplegic, he does not completely rule it out. “It’s true that for example, doing night and emergency shifts in the hospital would probably now be difficult in a wheelchair (thinking of emergency situations where you need CPR for instance) but jobs such as a radiation oncologist I would definitely still be able to do, which gives me a lot of comfort because I could always go back and work in the hospital if I wanted to.” For the time being though, Dr. Ostheimer is happy where he’s at.

And his relationship with his husband, whom he married many years before his injury and recently celebrated his 8th anniversary with, is one of the most important aspects of his life as well, with his husband’s support being instrumental. “My husband was definitely the absolute source of strength going through all of this and I’m so grateful that we and our relationship did not break because of me becoming disabled but rather, we came out of this together stronger than before.”

One thing that he and his husband continue to do after his injury is cycle together, with Dr. Ostheimer now owning a handcycle. “I’ve also continued swimming, which I’ve always loved to do even though it was quite challenging to relearn how to swim, or even stay above the water, without the use of your legs.” They also love to travel the world together and they visit New York City whenever they can since they are in close proximity, especially since they’re music and theater lovers. “Both me and my husband also play piano together.”

Dr. Ostheimer may have never wished for life in a wheelchair or even remotely thought about life in a wheelchair, like most people without spinal cord injuries, but to be quite honest he says, “I adapted to this new life, I accepted the ‘new me’ which is not better or worse than the ‘old me,’ just different and my aim is to make the best out of it that I can.” And as for the question that almost every person with a spinal cord injury first ask themselves when they find out they’re paralyzed, “Why me?”, which Dr. Ostheimer says he asked his doctor as well, he likes to default to what his doctor treating him at the time said, “Why not you?”

— Follow him on IG at ostheimer.christian  



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