“Everything that UPMC did in the most crucial moments put me on track for where I am now, and I still continue to improve daily.” –Ryan
The accident happened Jan. 27, 2019 during a high school ski club trip. It was only the second time Ryan had been on skis. “I thought, ‘I’m 18, I’m active, what’s the worst that could happen to me—a broken arm?'” says Ryan. “I never considered a spinal injury, especially nothing this severe.”
Ryan jumped off a ramp at the ski resort, but he landed wrong. Everyone who saw the fall and heard him scream rushed to help. “It’s like I was folded in half,” he says. “I was conscious, but my memory went blank from the agonizing pain in my back and my entire body. ” But he could still feel his legs. By the time the ski patrol got him back to the lodge, he could no longer feel them.
The emergency medical technicians instantly realized the level of trauma they saw simply couldn’t be addressed at a smaller hospital. He was flown to UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh. “I remember laying in the helicopter and they said, ’20 minutes to Pittsburgh’. They showed me a picture of the sunset outside since I couldn’t sit up, and I prayed the entire time,” says Ryan.
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The Intensive Care Unit
Ryan recalls seeing what seemed like a few dozen people awaiting him as he was wheeled into the hospital. “It’s incredible how many people were ready to help,” he says. He recalls having numerous tests — including x-rays, MRIs, CT scans — before being admitted.
“My uncle lives in Pittsburgh, so he was the first there,” says Ryan. “When I saw his reaction, it hit me that I was in really bad shape.” His parents and grandfather got to the hospital just as a nurse arrived to review the test results. “She said, ‘We need to go into surgery right now,'” says Ryan.
The imaging tests showed orthopaedic spine surgeon Jeremy D. Shaw, MD and his team at UPMC Presbyterian the severity of Ryan’s injuries — including the most serious injury, a spinal fracture in which the L1 vertebrae was touching the spinal cord, causing paralysis from the waist down. Because the vertebrae hadn’t punctured or severed the spinal cord, Dr. Shaw knew there was potential for Ryan to recover.
Following the surgery, Ryan spent seven days in the intensive care unit (ICU). Dr. Shaw visited him daily until he was transferred to inpatient rehabilitation. “He’d stop by, and we’d just talk — about my condition, but also about anything. What he did was amazing, and he’s such a great guy, too,” says Ryan.
In the ICU, physical therapists (PTs) started Ryan’s physical therapy by getting him to sit and stand. The work paid off; Ryan was able to twitch one of his toes before leaving the ICU.
While he remembers nothing, Ryan knows the surgery took several hours. During their first conversation after surgery, Dr. Shaw described what he did during Ryan’s surgery: He inserted two rods and 10 screws, fused the spine where the fracture occurred, and removed that back muscle that had been torn away. “I asked him if I would ever walk again,” says Ryan. “Dr. Shaw said, ‘We’ll do everything we can, but I can’t promise you that.’ It turns out I would do more than walk.”
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The Rehabilitation Institute
After a short transition stay at UPMC Montefiore, Ryan was admitted to UPMC Mercy for a month of inpatient rehabilitation — during which he pushed himself to the max. “The faster you can try to recover, the better,” says Ryan. “My mindset from the beginning was to work hard. I was just 18 and was going to try my hardest not to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I got very lucky.”
Under the guidance of his physical therapist, Ryan says he often was able to accomplish — or exceed — some weekly goals in a single day. And the goals became bigger with each passing day — from simply standing up with support to using a forearm walker with help; then on to using a normal walker, then forearm crutches, and then two canes. He continued to progress at an impressive speed, as his will to walk was stronger than the struggle and challenges he faced.
On his last day at UPMC Mercy, Ryan stood at the parallel bars without assistance. When the PT working with him that day gave the go-ahead, “I was able to shift one foot ever so slightly, then the other foot, and make it down to the end,” says Ryan. “I was just bawling.” Joe, his main PT, and the other PTs arrived to celebrate. “I said ‘I just walked!’ I’ll never forget that for as long as I live. The emotions and pure joy of doing that were overwhelming.”
The Minutes That Mattered
After returning home, Ryan continued with outpatient PT. Being flown to Pittsburgh after the accident, having intricate surgery performed immediately, and tackling rehab head-on has gotten Ryan to where he is today. “Everything that UPMC did in the most crucial moments put me on track for where I am now, and I continue to improve daily,” he says.
“I loved doing rehab at UPMC Mercy and became close with everyone there. At night, I’d wheel myself into the hallway to talk with the nurses. I still visit them when I can. A blessing from this entire journey is the people I’ve met along the way.”
Ryan finished his senior year of high school and was elected prom king. He also accomplished a goal he set at the beginning of rehab — to walk independently across the stage to accept his diploma at graduation. He is now a sophomore biology major at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, with a dream of becoming a neurology physical therapist to help others like his incredible PTs helped him.
Although he currently walks with ankle foot orthoses — external braces that support his limbs —Ryan recently began to run . “I’m trying to build up more strength and endurance, so I go to the gym a lot. I want to be able to maybe run a 5K or something one day.
“I like to keep setting goals and pushing toward them. My lofty goals in the beginning were standing up and walking, and we got there — so I’ll keep going. To be where I am even now is an amazing blessing and a miracle,” says Ryan.
NOTE: Ryan documented his entire recovery online in two personal videos* (part one and part two), with the goal of thanking the medical staff who helped him and inspiring others. He speaks at churches and replies to comments about his videos as a ‘thank you’ to those who supported him and as a resource for those who are currently struggling. “I know others can push through too, and I want to help them,” he says.
*These videos were privately produced and published by the patient. Links to the videos are provided as a convenience to readers. UPMC is not responsible for the content of these videos.
About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.