Quadriplegic adds medal to list of accomplishments

08/15/02

JIM KADERA

OREGON CITY -- Few people have survived one near-death experience. Jerry Ryan has done it twice.


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Perhaps that explains in part where Ryan, who uses a wheelchair, gathers the strength and desire to be more active than some people with healthy limbs.

His latest feat was winning a silver medal in discus throwing at the annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cleveland in July. The toss was just over 12 feet, a hefty distance for a 45-year-old quadriplegic with limited use of his arms and no feeling in his hands. The discus weighs more than two pounds.

That was a special event. Ryan is better known in the Portland area for his educational and fund-raising activities. He is a vice president of Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America and operates two nonprofit organizations. Still People Ltd. promotes spinal cord injury awareness, and Your Natural Path promotes healthy living without pharmaceuticals.

In 1997, Ryan founded the annual walk, run and roll in Oregon City for research. This year the event, which will be Oct. 12, has been expanded to include a Health and Wellness Expo at Clackamas Community College.

"Jerry's a real dynamic guy. He's on top of things," said Arnie Kirkham, a Molalla distributor of coffee mugs and other promotional material. Kirkham supplies the materials for some of the fund-raisers that Ryan organizes.

Born in San Bernardino, Calif., Ryan served in the U.S. Army as a surgical technician at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., from 1976 to 1980. Then he moved to the Portland area and did similar work at St. Vincent Hospital and OHSU Hospital. Attacked in operating room In 1987, Ryan was on the other end of medical care. He was working alone in an OHSU operating room in the middle of the night, setting out supplies for surgeries the next day. The next thing he remembers was coming out of a coma three days later.

"I had been hit in the head with a blunt object, but the object never was identified," he said. Because drugs had been stolen from the room one year earlier, there was speculation Ryan was attacked by an addict. However, no drugs were taken after he was attacked.

"There was a lot of memory loss. I'd have laughing and crying jags, or get angry and break furniture," Ryan recalled. "It took several years before my sense of smell and taste came back."

The most frightening times were waking in the middle of night hiding in bushes and dressed in black. "I had been in martial arts for 20 years," he said. "I was acting that out in trying to get back at the person who attacked me."

Ryan got mental health treatment to heal that wound. Other rehabilitation from the attack restored his language skills, and he graduated from Clackamas Community College in computer design with a 3.8 grade-point average. "Not bad for someone with brain damage," he said.

He worked with computers for a Bonneville Power Administration contractor for two years, "but I felt I wasn't helping people like I did at the hospitals." So he moved to New Mexico with his wife, Marcy, and two sons and sold hearing aids.

On Easter Sunday 1994, Ryan took his sons for a drive in a used car he had bought the previous day. At 70 mph, "there was a loud noise, and I woke up three months later in an Albuquerque rehabilitation center. All that I remember is what my sons told me happened."

A faulty tire had shredded, flipping the car in the air. The car landed on the driver's side, crushing Ryan. His sons escaped without serious injury. Coma after car wreck "I was in and out of a coma for three months," Ryan said. "They didn't expect me to live." His injuries included a pulverized vertebra, broken collarbone and broken ribs.

After extensive rehabilitation, Ryan moved with his family to Oregon City in late 1994.

The second brush with death left Ryan in a wheelchair and unable to drive a car. But in late 1995, he won a large settlement from the insurer of the dealer who sold him the car. The insurance settlement took care of the family's financial needs for several years.

Ryan then had to decide what to do with his life. In 1996, he started Still People to promote events to improve understanding between people with disabilities and those without.

"A kid will come up to me in a supermarket and want to know why I'm in a wheelchair, but the mother will tell the child to be quiet," he said. "We're not contagious. In your first year (of being in a wheelchair), you go through isolation thinking your life isn't worth a damn anymore.

"Now I feel I can move other people and touch other people's lives even if I can't move or touch."

Since joining the Paralyzed Veterans organization, Ryan has taken a leadership role and assists patients at Veterans Affairs hospitals in Vancouver and Seattle and the retired veterans' home in The Dalles. Besides checking on the quality of their health care, he gets ballgame tickets, movie videos, audio books and exercise equipment for them. Most of the money to buy the items comes from donations.

His newest venture, Your Natural Path, teaches people with disabilities and without how to be healthy without drugs. "I found that through herbs, diet changes and nutritional supplements, I could do without medications," Ryan said. "I haven't been sick in five years.

"I do this in consultation with my physician. He told me I was the only one of 75 paralyzed veterans he's seen who doesn't ask for more drugs."

David Porter, executive director of End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, met Ryan at a Rotary Club meeting.

"He's a pretty amazing guy," Porter said. "He doesn't let a lack of physical abilities get in the way of things he wants to do. He's a role model to us who don't take advantage of our abilities.

"And then he went out and won the discus medal. That's just a hoot." Jim Kadera: 503-294-5919; jimkadera@news.oregonian.com



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