Christina “Chrissy” Aitken was 5 years old when she was seriously burned in a house fire on the West Side of Cleveland in September 1994. She sustained burns over 85% of her body in the fire, which killed her two sisters and grandmother. Chrissy spent nine months in MetroHealth’s Burn Unit, undergoing a series of surgeries to stave off infection. Those surgeries saved her life but resulted in the amputation of her hands and feet. In June 1995, shortly after marking her 6th birthday in the Burn Unit, she was transferred to a children’s rehabilitation therapy facility.
After her initial hospitalization, Chrissy endured surgeries every three to six months, plus physical and occupational therapy three times a week. Once she hit her teenage years, the surgeries slowed to about one a year, mostly to treat open wounds that were slow to heal.
None of that stopped her from earning an associate degree in early childhood education from Cuyahoga Community College in 2013.
And it hasn’t prevented her from competing in para sports for people with physical disabilities.
Chrissy is a para equestrian and competes in para driving, which consists of drivers sitting on a carriage drawn by a single horse or pony while facing three trials – dressage, marathon and obstacle driving.
In August, Chrissy competed at the 2023 FEI Para Driving World Championship, held in The Netherlands. As an individual competitor on the US Para Driving Team, she brought home a bronze medal in the first division on August 24 and placed 10th overall out of 27 competitors from 17 countries. Team USA brought home the silver medal.
“The championship had an electric feel. There was a lot of commotion, it was pretty neat to be able to interact with the other drivers,” she said.
It was Chrissy’s first time outside of the United States. She was there for five weeks, including three weeks of training with a leased horse (it was too expensive to ship her own horse, Prince Charming).
Chrissy has always loved animals, but she never rode a horse until she was in college. Maple Crest Farm in Brecksville donated a package of four riding lessons to a fundraising event for the Aluminum Cans for Burned Children (ACBC) Burn Camp. The winning bidder gave it to Chrissy as a gift.
After a year of riding lessons at Brecksville, which Chrissy earned in exchange for helping out at the barn once a week, she decided to take up carriage driving. She found it easier, and it was something she could compete in as a para-athlete.
“Most people think of equestrian as dressage and jumpers,” she said. “Combined driving is little more laid back, it’s more fun.”
She has found success in the sport. She initially competed with horses owned by Maple Crest Farm before she acquired her horse, Prince Charming, three years ago.
When she and Prince Charming are not training in Florida in the winter, Chrissy lives in Parma Heights with Huey, a yellow lab service dog that she got almost two years ago. She drives a minivan she calls “Marshmallow.” She moved into her house three years ago. With the house’s hallways and doors widened, Bluetooth door locks that work with her phone, lights are controlled by Alexa and a walk-in shower instead of a bathtub, day-to-day life is a bit easier. An independent provider comes by twice a week to assist as needed and to clean.
Chrissy volunteers at an adult day center twice a week and devotes much of her free time to creating arts and crafts. She repurposes horseshoes, decorating them and reselling them as a fundraiser to help offset the cost of horse shows.
Chrissy is a member of the US Equestrian Team, but her specific events are not part of the Paralympic Games, held every four years following the Olympic Games. Her goals are to earn a place on Team USA, to compete in the FEI Para Driving National Championship in 2024, and return to the world championship event in 2026.
For the first time in June, Chrissy attended the MetroHealth Resiliency Run the annual fundraiser that benefits trauma and burn survivors who receive care at MetroHealth.
Over the years, she has kept in touch with people who helped care for her from the very beginning. Retired physician Richard Fratianne, MD; current nurse AnnMarie Gorman; and former/retired nurses Tammy Coffee, Marie Longo and Lynn Yurko – all are people who Chrissy says have been so important to her.
“MetroHealth has connected me with so many different people,” she said. “I’m still in touch with my Burn Camp ‘family.’ And the Burn Unit and Plastic Surgery departments are the ones who hooked me up with the people who make my prosthetic devices.”
Annmarie was a newly licensed nurse who had been at MetroHealth for only a few months when she began helping care for Chrissy. They reconnected years later with the help of the Office of Patient Experience and have stayed in touch. Annmarie attended a fundraiser in May that raised money for Chrissy’s expenses to compete in the Netherlands.
“She made an impact on me,” she said. “She just amazes me with her strength and charisma.”
Andrea Gallup, who has worked as a nurse in the Plastic Surgery Department for 19 years, first met Chrissy about 10 years ago. She was part of the surgical team for Chrissy’s most recent surgery three years ago, after she fell during a competition and a wound on her elbow wouldn’t close. Andrea sees Chrissy every month to flush out an internal chest port inserted several years ago so Chrissy wouldn’t have to deal with frequent needle sticks for medications.
Connecting with the people at the farm, becoming a para equestrian, getting Huey, living independently – all of it has been huge for Chrissy, Andrea says.
“It chokes me up, I’m so happy for her and so proud of her,” she said. “She’s just thriving.”