Serving our military
Christopher A. Rábago, Ph.D., PT, is not your typical physical therapist. And, he surely isn’t your usual biomedical researcher. His rare combination of biomedical engineering knowledge, analytical research skills and clinical abilities make him a perfect fit at a unique military treatment and research facility.
Dr. Rábago works with a diverse team of scientists and physical therapists performing amputee, prosthetic and limb injury clinical research in the Military Performance Laboratory at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI). The CFI, located at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, is part of the Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Extremity Trauma and Amputation Center of Excellence.
Dr. Rábago is a triple graduate of the Health Science Center and said his work with wounded warriors often makes him think of where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was in my first year of physical therapy school at the Health Science Center. I was in Dr. Patricia Brewer’s neuroanatomy lab in the basement of the medical school. The events of that day affected me profoundly,” he said.
A couple of years later, when he was about to earn his master’s degree in physical therapy, which then required a coordinating bachelor’s degree in health care sciences, Dr. Rábago explored the idea of joining the military as a physical therapist.
“At that time, the military had no openings for physical therapists, so I thought working with the military was off the table,” he said. The San Antonio native—inspired by his physical therapy professors—decided to stay at the Health Science Center after graduation to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.
This may have seemed a big leap from physical therapy to biomedical engineering, but the joint program between the Health Science Center and The University of Texas at San Antonio “offered a great integration of clinical and engineering courses,” he said. It also helped that Dr. Rábago had a strong background in the core courses that made up the diverse curriculum.
“When I first went to college, I started off as an electrical engineering major at UT Austin. After my first year, I changed my major to kinesiology. After earning my bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, I stayed at UT Austin and earned my first master’s degree in kinesiology with a biomechanics specialty,” he said.
At the Health Science Center, Dr. Rábago was supervised by Dr. Jack Lancaster at the Research Imaging Institute (RII).
“The RII was an incredible place to conduct research and expand my knowledge and research skills,” Dr. Rábago said. “I was a PT learning neuroimaging techniques on all these new, incredible imaging devices.”
His dissertation involved using transcranial magnetic stimulation to study motor control in a project funded by the VA.
After earning his Ph.D. in 2009, he received an email from a fellow alumnus he met while serving as the founding president of the Physical Therapy Alumni Association at the Health Science Center.
“This forwarded email gave details about a position at the [Center for the Intrepid] for a physical therapist with experience in neuro research and who had a Ph.D.,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I began here in October 2009 as a contractor and in 2011 became the first Army civilian employee for the DoD/VA Extremity Trauma and Amputation Center of Excellence.”
Dr. Rábago also serves as an adjunct professor at the U.S. Army-Baylor DPT Program at Fort Sam Houston and is a faculty associate in the Long School of Medicine at the Health Science Center.
He is a team lead on projects using a Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment, which is referred to as CAREN, for virtual reality rehabilitation for injured service members. Using the CAREN’s 300-degree virtual reality environment, physical therapists can assess and treat service members in a safe, simulated reality.
In the CAREN, there are 24 motion-capture cameras tracking the movements of a wounded warrior while he or she interacts with elements in realistic and challenging scenarios created by a CAREN operator. Dr. Rábago and his colleagues can assess a service member’s biomechanics for adaptation to a prosthetic, to identify deficits following brain injury, or to determine readiness for discharge and a return to duty.
The Military Performance Laboratory at the Center for the Intrepid also contains a state-of-art Gait and Motion Analysis system to aid in developing and evaluating novel prosthetic devices.
“When new prosthetic devices are developed, we get them first to evaluate. If they don’t increase the function of our servicemen and women, it’s difficult to justify their prescription,” Dr. Rábago added.
“The technology we have here allows us to assess and treat our wounded warriors while also performing clinical research. Everything we do is evidence-based practice, which I learned at the Health Science Center,” he said. “We have the best therapists working at the CFI who ask great questions that turn into research projects, all in order to optimize and better the care of our patients. I am so proud that I was able to come to the Center for the Intrepid and work with our military members. At the CFI, we get the pleasure of serving those who have sacrificed so much in service to our country.”