MAYWOOD, N.J. — "Why do you want to be a physical therapist, you only have one hand?"
That question from a Boston University professor should've derailed Hasbrouck Heights native Christian Gartner from his American dream.
But Gartner, who opened Maywood's Total Physical Therapy in 2009, had the answer all along:
I enjoy getting rid of people’s pain because it actually makes me feel like I’m getting rid of my own stigma and my own pain.
Despite the hurdles that he faced along the way Gartner of Ringwood has gone on to become one of the most successful in his field.
It started in his father's Hasbrouck Heights pork store, when Gartner, then 14, lost his hand in a meat grinder.
"My parents didn't know what to do with me after that," he said. "They sort of locked me in a closet, but that had harsh repercussions because we all have to deal with our changing worlds."
Gartner had no choice but to lift himself up.
He became the fourth person in the world to undergo toe-to-hand surgery, and credits his Hackensack doctor, Gregory E. Rauscher, for giving him hope.
He found a job working at Harvard University as a research tech, which allowed him to get his name on publications and — because he was an employee — earn continuing education credits for graduate school.
Then, he became the first person with a disability to graduate from UMDNJ — now Rutgers Newark — to receive a masters degree.
"And they didn't make it easy," Gartner said. "I hit every pothole you could imagine."
More difficult exams. Financial strains. Bullying from professors.
That was before Former President George W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Gartner felt alone.
What kept him going, though, was knowing that there were people who needed his help.
In 2009, Gartner scrounged what money he had and opened Total Physical Therapy. and in the last three years has become one of the few physicians in the area to get certified in dry needling.
Dry needling is an effective therapy to treat muscular tension and spasm which commonly accompanies conditions. The needle itself is the treatment, Gartner explained, as it taps the nerve of the spine causing the pain that "goes like tentacles to many muscles affecting the joint."
The technique can be effective in preventing opiate addictions, as almost 60% of them are caused by doctors who prescribed medication to patients with neck or back pain, Gartner said.
The resources Gartner had following his accident in the early 80s are pale in comparison to what's available today.
And he's proud of his journey and the fact that he has what it takes to help people who need it.
"My point is to never give up trying," Gartner said.
"If you work through life's challenges, you might find yourself in a situation where you have a wonderful wife, three beautiful children and you're making your way through — and living the American dream.
"With one hand."