University of Washington

Department of Rehabilitation Medicine

Patient Stories: Chris Blanchard

Chris Blanchard and his Assist Dog, Ben.

As an employee at Chihuly Studio in Seattle, Chris Blanchard often worked in the rafters on one of the artist’s famous large-installation glassworks. It was while doing such work in August of 1997 that Chris fell approximately 22 feet from a scissor lift to the concrete floor below, landing on his back and sustaining a C5/6 spinal cord injury.

Chris was initially treated at Harborview Medical Center, where doctors stabilized his condition. His transfer to the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit was by choice. He had heard of our excellent staff, and the location was closer to his home.

A patient at the UWMC for three months, Chris remembers the time as a positive experience during which he worked extensively with his rehab team: physiatrist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, rehabilitation counselor, social worker and nursing staff. Specifically, Chris credits his physical and occupational therapists with helping him to be realistic about what he could do, and with teaching him what he needed to know about spinal cord injury. His rehabilitation counselor helped him to learn how to use voice activated software and to access a computer. His social worker showed him how to navigate the Labor & Industries system that paid for his rehabilitation, since he was injured while on the job.

When asked what was most helpful, Chris is quick to say that it was his team and his attitude. He believes that following the team’s lead and working cooperatively with them allowed him to accomplish so much in his rehabilitation. Another important factor in Chris's success was the involvement of his parents and girlfriend in the rehabilitative process.

Since his rehabilitation, Chris has led a full and productive life. After leaving the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit, he started taking the bus three days a week to volunteer back at Chihuly Studio. One year later, he returned to the payroll, tracking purchases and using the AutoCAD system, a software program for scupting and architectural design. Although he had experience with the system prior to his accident, he now learned to more fully utilize it for his work by seeking help from his architect colleagues and through self-teaching.

Today, Chris is the lead designer at Chihuly Studio and owns his own company called Pinwheel Corp, where he works with a partner and three full-time employees to design and build sculptures from stainless steel, and aluminum cable and tubes. You can see his sculptures at the University of Michigan, Myer Gardens in Grand Rapids, the University of Puerto Rico, Paris’s sculpture garden, Nashville, New York and Holland.

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