When I think back to those days in the Vall d'Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, Spain, I think of the airplane ride from Boston to Spain. I remember that heavy, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember the terrible fear my husband and I felt when sitting on the plane knowing that we had to endure a 9-10 hour plane ride that would bring us to a foreign place where our son was waiting for us to come and share the awful news with him, just waiting and hoping that we would come into the hospital room and tell him that everything was going to be all right. To tell him that the doctors will fix everything and that this was just a little hiccup in his young life.
I remember that it was raining and miserable when we landed in Spain. We could not even gather our thoughts, let alone find our way through the strange airport. We were in shock. Thank God that the company Ryan worked for provided us with a translator and guide. Our instructions were to go to the designated gate and look for a woman holding a sign with our name on it. Not being able to even think, we followed instructions and found our guide and saving grace: Penny and her husband Alan. Although she was our appointed guide at the time, in all actuality she became our personal Guardian Angel. I think back on the 4-5 weeks we spent in Spain and I am honestly not sure how we could have functioned without her. As promised, Penny and Alan were there, dutifully waiting for us with kind, sympathetic smiles, smiles that spoke of the empathy they felt for us. For they too were parents and knowing why we were there, could only imagine being in the same situation.
The ride to the Hospital seemed to take forever. Thank God for our guides because not only were we unable to function, but being in a foreign country and following directions is a challenge in itself, never mind being in the state of mind Ron and I were in. Time was moving in slow motion and all I remember thinking is that this all has to be a bad dream or terrible mistake. Someone please pinch me and wake me up because I am not having a good time. This is not what I would ever imagine happening to me….never mind my child!
There are moments in our lives where time stands still and we can remember the minute details, as if our senses are on heightened alert. I so clearly remember walking into the hospital. I remember the long driveway and curved stairway heading up to the Emergency front door, and the small coffee shop right outside the front entrance. Once inside I remember the light green walls, the display case in the main entrance with antique operating tools in it. I remember thinking that it was a strange hospital display reminding me of a horror movie. I remember the small 8x10 conference room we were escorted to before we would be allowed to see Ryan. The room with one old metal desk, four chairs and bare walls, a 10 foot ceiling with one light hanging in the center. So cold. There we sat, my husband, Penny, Alan and I, silently waiting for the doctor and charge nurse to come in and tell us the unthinkable news….the news that no parent ever can be prepared for.
After what seemed to be for ever, the doctor and nurse arrive. Only adding to the intense stress of the situation the doctor spoke very little English, this is why we need Penny. The doctor speaks, Penny translates, we acknowledge that we understand….this form of communication goes on until the whole prognosis is out. We think we understand, but the words still do not sink in. “Your son has sustained a spinal cord injury at the cervical 3rd, 4th and 5th level. His injury is complete, meaning that he will not be able to move from the nipple line down”. We ask him to repeat this, maybe if we hear it again, there will be more hope in his words. His message does not change. But we still think that maybe this doctor in Spain does not know what he is talking about. At this point our minds are shutting down and all we want to do is see Ryan. We need to see Ryan and then we will be ok.
Walking into the Emergency Room and seeing Ryan for the first time post - accident is a picture that will be forever etched in my mind. He was still in his clothes, although his shirt was torn from the emergency technicians trying to gain access to his body. He had a neck brace on and was hooked up to a heart monitor and IV’s. We look past all of that and other than the apparent abrasions sustained from the accident, he looked ok, at least not as bad as the doctor told us. Hope surfaces again and thoughts of miscommunication came into our minds immediately. We think “he is ok, it is all a mistake, a terrible mistake.” Ryan looks at us and actually smiles. My heart feels like a weight that is swelling in my throat and feels like it is being wrenched out of my chest. How can I possibly be strong for him?
I am not sure where he came from, or who he takes after, but it is Ryan who is actually consoling us. He is the one lying on the stretcher, in the emergency room, faced with the devastating news of how he will not move again, and HE is consoling US. He actually makes attempts to make us smile with his sick sense of humor. The next hours are a blur. Our parent mode starts to kick in and we are now all three working as a team. We are in this together and listen carefully to the doctors who tell us the plan for surgery and rehabilitation. My immediate plans to head home to Boston are very quickly squelched. Ryan is in no way stable enough to make any kind of flight home. We still have no idea of a timeframe but know that it will be at least a few weeks before he is anywhere near stable enough to consider travel. First things first: Ryan’s surgery and physical stabilization.
I know that there are many first times in our lives, but this is a first time I never imagined I would be experiencing... Ryan on the emergency room stretcher, Ron and I on either side of the stretcher being mindful of the IV bottles and many other tubes connected to Ryan helping the medical team make determinations on how his body was really doing. The three of us trying to remain calm and pulled together, and fill the silent spaces with surface chatter. While all the time we were really trying to absorb and understand what was happening and what in God’s name happened to Ryan.
We learn very quickly that he will have to go into surgery and that the “team” of doctors are trying to determine the best ways to repair his neck. It is awful how we cannot understand much of what they tell us. The nurses and medical team all stop to explain what the plan is but our minds are still not working correctly. Shock was still keeping us from totally understanding what they explained. Thankfully Trek (The company Ryan worked for) had also provided us with a specialist from Wisconsin to connect with...another Guardian Angel. We called him to help us understand what would be happening during the surgery, and also to consult with him as we moved through the recovery process. Dr.Cliff Tribus played a significant role in helping us to feel more confident in the medical team and what they were doing for Ryan.
We were told that Ryan would be operated on within the next 12 hours and they would enter his neck from the front, to the left of his throat. About a 4 inch incision. The team explained the work that they would do and that the process will take 7-10 hours. Ryan’s welfare and future were in their hands.
Day 2: A new beginning…………..
Ryan responds well to the surgery. He was assigned a room in ICU, and Ron and I now make plans with the hotel we were set up in (hotel arrangements all set up by Trek Travel). The hotel is within walking distance of the hospital and the walk actually turns out to be a therapeutic distance for sorting out our thoughts when leaving the hospital, and when returning, a way for us to prepare for the day. We make friends with the hotel employees and the coffee shop ladies even though we speak very little Spanish. Empathy and the need to connect supersedes all language barriers.
The next three weeks are the indicators of Ryan's progress and journey back home. How Ryan’s body heals is the real ticket back to Boston. So much happened in that timeframe, so many details of how medicine is not the do all, end all to how a body will heal and repair from a traumatic accident. To be honest, I truly feel that it was Ryan’s ability to look fate right in the eye and defy the odds. Ryan was part of a team of his own. He and his body were not doing anything without his mind, and it was his mind that was in control. Ryan worked diligently every waking hour to reconnect his mind with his body.
I remember movement started to happen within hours after his surgery. This was our first glimmer of hope. Ry would lay in bed full eye contact on his big toe, or his hand, or the tip of his pinky finger...willing the appendage to move. How simple it sounds. It was not long before the medicine we all needed happened, his finger moved and then miraculously his big toe moved…..ever so slightly…..but he made it move! There is nothing that will stop him now!
When the world says give up….Hope whispers “try one more time.”
I remember how difficult it was to not think about how very different it would have been if we were in Boston near our families and familiar hospitals. This said, we are grateful for having Ryan’s doctor, Dr. Viejo Gonzalez (Gon-THAL-Les) and the whole medical team, including the many doctors who came in for consult, the nurses, and wonderful aides and technicians who all were nothing but respectful and sympathetic to our situation. Everyone took part in our emotional healing including the two women who worked in the small coffee shop outside the hospital, and the employees from the Hotel Alimara where Ron and I called “home” for those 4 weeks. We will also be forever grateful for Penny and Alan and their beautiful daughter Tashi, and how they diligently and lovingly held our hands and hearts as they guided us through the maze. We will never forget any of these wonderful people who came into our lives when we needed them so.
It has been 6 years since Ryan’s accident and I have never heard Ryan express anything about a physical limit with a “poor me” attitude. I have never heard him say “I can’t”, but I am sure that Ryan has days when he has negative feelings and his hope factor is low. My mother used to tell us when we were kids that if you think positive thoughts - only positive will happen… and Ryan is a testament to this statement. Positivity oozes from his pores…..and he has a way of making positive contagious.
Just as the late Dr. Dyer stated “the only limits you have…...are the limits you believe”.