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James Murtha

Location, Ann Arbor, MI

Twenty-five-year-old James Murtha was mountain biking with friends in Snowmass when he lost control of his bike, fell down a small slope and landed on his head.

An Emergency Medical Technician, James instantly knew something was very wrong. “I couldn’t feel my arms and legs,” he said. “[I knew] I had broken my neck and was paralyzed… and that it was permanent.”

After three and a half weeks in intensive care, James was admitted to Craig Hospital with three fractured vertebrae (one of which was “completely obliterated”) and spinal cord damage around C3 and C4. He had a feeding tube and had not eaten solid foods or showered for almost a month. James had suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury, was breathing through a ventilator, unable to move his legs and barely able to move his arms or fingers.


He began rehabilitation with basic sensation and motion tests; his physical therapy involved standing frame and FES bikes and stretching machine exercises. He relearned how to manage daily living tasks like feeding himself and, he adds, “combing my mustache, which has since been removed, God rest its soul.”

Meanwhile, James became good friends with other patients. One friend started painting to help regain some upper arm strength. James mentioned this to his Occupational Therapist and, “Being an artist herself, Sarah lit up with excitement,” James said, “She made a tireless effort to make sure I’d be able to do this with the best of my ability.”


He began to paint using his arm and adaptive paintbrushes. He sits completely upright while he works, which strengthens his neck muscles and improves posture. James is surprised by the satisfaction he feels when he finished a painting. One of his pieces won a competition to represent Craig’s thirty sixth annual Hobie Day, annual event that brings the entire hospital staff and about 50 patients a year out for a day of boating.

“Art really motivated him,” said Sarah Harrison, MS, OT. “[It] gave him a goal, a creative outlet. As Occupational Therapists, we want to do things that are meaningful to our patients, so art was just a really good way to motivate him.”

James is now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he continues outpatient rehabilitation and is studying to become a counselor. Physically, James has made tremendous gains. He is now able to lift both arms. His triceps are slowly beginning to fire again, and while his wrists, fingers and legs are still not functioning, he’s still working hard to rehabilitate, calling the movement he has an “invaluable gift.”

James believe in the power of visualizing movement in the affected areas as he works to improve movement, and he said his friendships with fellow patients, his care team and the support of his family helped him know in his lowest moments that he wasn’t alone.

James said, “Every one of the people [who supported me] were invaluable in giving me the confidence and the motivation to work hard with what was, and work toward what could be.”


What does he want other people in rehabilitation to know? He acknowledges that not everyone has the same level of resources he has had, but adds that even so, “You can go further than you imagine,” he said. “Most of all, don’t give up. Ever.”


Team Members

  • Mark R. Johansen, M.D. Physician; SCI Program Medical Director

    CNS Medical Group

    Mark R. Johansen, M.D., supervises one of Craig's spinal cord injury rehabilitation teams. Dr. Johansen joined the CNS Medical Group in July 2001 following a subspecialty Fellowship program in neurotrauma rehabilitation at Craig. He received his medical degree and completed his residency training in rehabilitation medicine at the University of Utah where he served as chief resident and was honored with the Mark P. Scott Memorial Award for outstanding resident. Dr. Johansen finished his year of internship in internal medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver. In 2004 Dr Johansen received a sub-specialty certification in SCI by the Board of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

  • Avery LaFleur Inpatient Clinical Care Manager

    Clinical Care Management

    Avery La Fleur, MSW, has been a part of the Craig Hospital family since 2004. After completing his undergraduate degrees at Wartburg College in Waverly, Ia., he moved to Colorado and worked in corrections. After several years working in corrections Avery went on to get his Masters degree in Social Work, at the University of Denver, Graduate School of Social Work, Denver, Co.; where his emphasis was in Medical Social Work as well as Individual, Family, and Group Counseling. He is also a guest professor for the University of Phoenix. Avery provides educational classes at Craig Hospital in the areas of Sexuality and Romance, Discharge Planning, and Social Skills.

  • Jill Baldessari, OTR/L, ATP Occupational Therapy Supervisor

    Assistive Technology

    Jill Baldessari is the supervisor of the Assistive Technology lab and joined the Craig team in 2001. Her areas of expertise include treatment of spinal cord injuries and collaborating with Craig’s Vocational Rehab Department to help patients return to work and school after discharge.

    jbaldessari@craighospital.org / 303-789-8457

  • ​Lester Butt Director of Psychology

    Lester Butt, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is the Director of the Department of Psychology. He received his doctoral training at The George Washington University (M.Phil. 1970 and Ph.D. 1973) in Clinical Psychology. Dr. Butt did his internship and post-doctoral fellowship within the Harvard Medical School hospital system, 1972-1974. Dr. Butt has worked in the field of Rehabilitation Psychology since beginning at Craig Hospital in 1977 and has served as the Director of Psychology since 1987. Dr. Butt is responsible for direct clinical care and administrative duties. Dr. Butt is Board Certified and is the immediate Past President of the American Board of Rehabilitation Psychology, a specialty within the American Board of Professional Psychology. Additionally, he is the three-time Past President of the American Association of Spinal Cord Injury Psychologists and Social Workers (AASCIPSW) and has served on their Board of Directors for ten years. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association divisions of Rehabilitation Psychology, Psychotherapy, and Trauma Psychology and has served as a Panel Member for the Consortium of Spinal Cord Medicine, Clinical Practice and Consumer Guidelines for Depression and Individuals with Ventilator Dependency. Dr. Butt received a National Institute of Health Mental Health Fellowship, 1968-1972 and is the recipient of the Clinical Performance and Essie Morgan Awards from AASCIPSW. In 2007, he was given the Lifetime Award of Practitioner Excellence by the American Psychological Association’s Division of Rehabilitation Psychology. He is on the Editorial Board of NeuroRehabilitation and serves as the reviewer for multiple other publications.

  • Tom Horan Clinical Liaison

    Therapeutic Recreation

    thoran@craighospital.org

  • Joe Fangman Physical Therapist

    Physical Therapy

  • Sarah Horan Occupational Therapist

    Occupational Therapy