Ignacio Montoya

(Photo courtesy Ignacio Montoya)

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Ignacio Montoya and his father, also named Ignacio, won the visa lottery to legally get out of Cuba in 1997, when Montoya was 6.

His mother, Carmen, had died two years earlier from leukemia. After his wife’s death, Montoya’s father had no reason to stay. He enrolled in the immigration lottery and won a ticket out.

Father and son boarded a plane in Havana. Montoya had never seen such a thing. He was more accustomed to the scooters and motorcycles people used in his small village.

As the plane descended toward Miami International Airport, Montoya remembers seeing the lights of the city below.

“It was like magic,” he said. “I remember having this anxious, suspenseful feeling of not knowing what to expect. It was already getting dark, and seeing all these lights, this city, I can’t even begin to describe it.”

The passengers cheered, clapped, sang and cried as the plane touched down.

“From that day, I set it in my mind that I wanted to fly airplanes,” Montoya said.

The pair soon ended up in Atlanta. Montoya worked alongside his father during winter breaks as his father installed garage doors.

One day, as his father took a break, he told his son, “You see how hard I work out in this cold, cutting my hands, straining my back? You don’t have to do this, Ignacio. We’re not in Cuba anymore. You can get an education, you can chase your dreams.”

Montoya didn’t want to let him down. So he studied. He got good grades. And soon after he started college at Georgia State University, he visited a U.S. Air Force recruiting office.

“How do I become a pilot?” he asked the recruiter.

The chances of being selected for pilot training are less than one in 1,000, the recruiter told him.

“You better have a back-up plan,” he told Montoya.

But Montoya was determined to serve his new country. He cross-enrolled at Georgia Tech, which offered Air Force ROTC.

He kept his grades high, kept physically fit and even had eye surgery to give him perfect vision. He became honor guard captain of the AFROTC unit.

And then, in 2012, the unbelievable happened — Montoya was selected for pilot training.

“Everything I had dreamed of was coming true,” he said.

Ignacio Montoya

(Photo courtesy Ignacio Montoya)

Montoya was scheduled to graduate in spring 2013. At the end of the fall semester of 2012, Montoya, with medals and ribbons adorning his dress uniform, spoke to a group of new cadets on the Georgia Tech campus. He left and got on his motorcycle. He turned it on.

It was the last sound he remembers hearing for more than three months.

On his way home from the ceremony, a minivan pulled in front of him. He was thrown into and over the minivan and landed on the highway.

He lay there as emergency vehicles worked their way through end-of-day traffic and Christmas shoppers at a nearby mall.

Kathryn Thorpe, a pediatric nurse who was out Christmas shopping, came upon the accident and saw Montoya. She administered chest compressions for 15 minutes.

“It was something that will stay with you,” Thorpe said of the scene, the young man in uniform whose face she couldn’t see and who had no pulse. She continued CPR. Finally, she detected a weak pulse. Paramedics arrived and rushed Montoya, who had turned 22 just the day before, to the hospital.

For months, Thorpe never knew what happened to the young man. Montoya, paralyzed from the accident, was in a coma for three months.

About 40 people each hour have a cardiac arrest while not in a hospital, and about nine of 10 do not survive, according to American Heart Association statistics. Yet receiving bystander CPR can double or even triple the victim’s chances of survival.

When he was released from Shepherd Center, he managed to get the traffic report. He had hoped that reading the report and returning to the scene would stir some memories. Nothing.

He found the name of Kathryn Thorpe on the report. There was a number. He called her.

“I never even knew if he survived,” said Thorpe.

Montoya invited her to a ceremony at Georgia Tech, where he received an award. He gave it to Thorpe, who received a standing ovation from the officers and cadets.

Ignacio Montoya

(Photo courtesy Ignacio Montoya)

Thorpe said the most important lesson from her experience is that Hands-Only CPR can save lives.

“It doesn’t have to be mouth-to-mouth. Anyone can save a life. People need to know this,” she said.

“I will never stop being grateful for her saving my life,” said Montoya, who graduated from Georgia State in May 2014. “She made the impossible possible. And with God’s continued grace, I will walk again.”

The Air Force is giving him until 2020 to return to his commission should he neurologically and functionally recover enough to get out of the wheelchair.

While Montoya realizes he has a long way to go to return to flying independently, he has temporarily adjusted his dreams. He now hopes to study biomedical engineering to learn how to develop devices that can help others who have suffered spinal cord injuries not have to rely on a wheelchair.