Rich Lajara was known as the fun, crazy guy, with a dessert-first approach to life. His first home—purchased when he was 28 years old—was a vacation cabin in the woods of Arnold, California, where he loved to spend weekends hiking, mountain biking, snowboarding, swimming, and hanging out with friends.
That beautiful mountain setting is also where Lajara’s life took an abrupt and unexpected turn in 2011, when a terrible accident left him paralyzed from mid-torso down.
On Sept. 5, 2011, Lajara and six of his friends headed to at a popular swimming hole near his cabin. A crowd which gathered to enjoy the cool water on that sweltering afternoon, above Candy Rock, a 60-foot-long natural granite rock slide. Walking near the top of the feature, Lajara slipped and fell head-first down the 15-foot ledge behind the waterfall and into the water below. He could see people jumping into the water around him, their faces filled with fear and worry. Friends set off to get help, and he was rescued hours later by helicopter.
A surgeon examined Lajara and concluded he had dislocated and broken his spine between the T-9 and T-10 vertebrae, and recommended surgical repair. The injury left him without any sensation “from about four fingers above the belly button through my feet,” Lajara said.
“That’s the most surreal thing, having to be retaught how to put on your socks,” he said. “I had no clue if I could return to work, and it sounded, at first, like I was going to need a caretaker. I realized nothing was ever going to be the same and it scared the (expletive) out of me.”
In a frantic scramble to help Lajara, friends tapped their connections and found the world’s first-ever clinical trial of an experimental therapy using human embryonic stem cells (hesc). As “Patient No. 4” in that clinical trial, Lajara became California’s first person to receive hesc, a ground-breaking treatment, and in Sept. 2011, surgeons injected 2 million nervous system cells into Lajara’s spine. Although Lajara understood the purpose of the clinical trial was to test the therapy for safety, he secretly hoped he’d regain some sensation and movement. Geron’s trial that Lajara was initially enrolled in was halted, although later relaunched in 2014 by Asterias.
Lajara began to educate himself on the science and politics behind the cells in which he was placing so much hope. He met staff at Americans for Cures, as well as other patient advocates. As he became more involved with advocacy and other patient ambassadors, Lajara explains, “I want to help educate people about the science of stem cells and how developments in one kind of stem cells can help other areas of the field. It’s a big role, an important role and I’m proud to be a part of the Americans for Cures team.”
Lajara, now 37, is excited about what’s to come in this trial and its hopeful therapeutic implications, although he is now precluded from participating in further clinical studies of this therapy.
“In my heart, I believe that being in a wheelchair is temporary. In my lifetime, I’m going to walk. So, it helps know there’s something over the horizon, some level of a cure.”