Suddenly becoming paralyzed requires a strong will to adapt to new limitations. Not only is the body immobilized, but patients must learn how to perform everyday task differently. Wheelchairs, for instance, are meant to provide more mobility, but it’s often still not enough to go back to life as it was before.
Ben Huntzinger, 33, of Cairo, Georgia, is a T4 paraplegic who knows all too well what life in a wheelchair is like. In 2009, Huntzinger was involved in a car accident while under the influence. He broke the fourth vertebrae in his back and severed his spinal cord.
Huntzinger was very active before his accident, working 40 hours a week and still making it to the gym each day. He enjoyed running half marathons, fly fishing, hunting, kayaking, and mountain biking.
“Clears the cob webs, as my mom says,” he said
Like most, Huntzinger struggled coming to terms with his injuries. He said he had to ultimately decide what he wanted his life to be like in this new situation.
“It is what you make it,” he said. “If (I) let myself get down and out, then I’ll be down and out. But if I remain positive and keep moving forward with hope, motivation, and joy, then everything’s okay. There’s definitely a learning curve after you get paralyzed.”
Huntzinger continued to challenge his body by placing 45-pound weights on his lap and pushing up a parking deck. He wanted to find a new meaning for life with his injuries.
“I was searching for the discipline and regimented lifestyle spinal cord rehabilitation gave me,” he said. “My personal trainer came in every morning at 6 a.m. ready to work. (At) the very start of it all, I was thinking, ‘Man, this is stupid. No wonder everybody’s depressed.’”
Huntzinger quickly realized during his rehabilitation that wheelchairs did not offer him enough mobility. He decided that enough was enough with his limitations.
“Wheelchairs won’t even roll on the grass,” he said. “Or over the cracks in sidewalks. I saw quadriplegics that couldn’t use their hands or had to use a straw beside me in rehab every day. Only someone pitying themselves would not feel extremely grateful to at least have their hands. I was real gung-ho about the whole situation. I would show newly injured patients how to do things.”
It didn’t take long for Huntzinger to realize that the wheelchairs available to him limited his mobility mechanically.
“I mean, there was so much more you could do with your day physically if your wheelchair would go with you,” Huntzinger said. “I used to push my wheelchair from my house to the Shepherd Center every day to lift weights. You are dodging pot holes, roots, going up and down hills. You need something that can traverse that terrain better than a standard wheelchair.”
Huntzinger began collecting sporting equipment and experimenting with the parts.
“I kept tinkering, hustling everybody I could to help: Georgia Tech, machine shops, welding schools, anybody,” he said. “It just all boiled down to they couldn’t see or understand what I was getting at because they had no idea how much I was doing and still do sitting down.”
Huntzinger decided to enroll in South Georgia Technical College in 2018 to enhance his welding skills and learn how to get his creations on paper. Going off the inspiration of the aesthetics of mountain bikes and his love for outdoor living, Huntzinger created an all-terrain wheelchair.
In April 2019, Huntzinger entered the Georgia InVenture Prize competition with his invention and won two of the three top awards and $25,000. He said that he wants to change the wheelchair lifestyle for not only himself, but for others too.
“I wasn’t going to live according to the wheelchair’s lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to be the guy that everyone looked up to and did something about the problem I saw the need to fix.”
When asked about next steps with his invention, Huntzinger explained that he had a lot in store for his future plans, mainly targeting others who could also benefit.
“I am always creating new things,” he said. “I am working with quadriplegics on better ways to help serve them. I want every paralyzed veteran to have one of my chairs too. These two things are big goals I am working toward. I’ll never stop moving forward with better ways to make the earth accessible for everybody. I was born for this mission.”
Written by: Alex Dunn
Photography by Eric Vinson