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BRINGING RYAN BACK

 

Part Three Click Here

Part Two - Facing The Truth And The Future

Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Story By Diana Keough
Plain Dealer Reporter

 

Patrolman Ryan Nagy realized his right leg was gone by reading about it in the news paper.

"My leg's gone," he said to his wife, Barb, as she walked into his hospital room at 9 a.m. on Mother's Day, pointing at the bulletin board hanging beside his bed. From it hung a newspaper clipping about his accident on I-71 on April 11.

Barb had hung the board there a few days before, loading it with photographs: Ryan with his buddies from the Middleburg Heights Police and Fire departments; Ryan holding their two kids.

Their children's names: Zachary, 3, and Emma, 2.

And there were more pictures. Ryan and Barb on their annual trip to Daytona Beach, Fla.; Ryan building the kids' swing set the day before the accident.

She was hoping the pictures would bring his mind back. As Barb put the article on the board, she thought, Who knows if he'll ever be able to comprehend this.

The first seven days Ryan was at Metro Health Medical Center, he was kept in a drug-induced coma. He was slow to come out of it. When he did, he babbled, didn't recognize Barb from one moment to the next and was constantly agitated.

An MRI showed why: Ryan's brain had major contusions -- bruises on the brain that take time to heal, doctors told her. They didn't know how long it would take or how much cognitive ability he would eventually recover.

Now, 26 days after the accident, his physical condition stabilized, he was moved to the brain injury and stroke rehabilitation floor. His mind still meandered in and out. Mostly out. He was doing regular physical, occupational and speech therapy. Doctors encouraged Barb not to give up hope. That was hard.

Some days Ryan made big strides in rehab -- saying the entire alphabet or remembering the names and birth dates of his kids; some days, he was too confused to recall their names.

Every day Barb told Ryan about the accident and the loss of his right leg. But the next morning, he would be confused and she would have to tell him again. The doctors said it was post-traumatic amnesia.

On Mother's Day, though, Barb noticed a dramatic change in Ryan. He wasn't speaking nonsense. He recognized her.

"A doctor was here and he told me I had to get my leg cut off," Ryan said. Barb doubted him. On Sundays, doctors didn't do rounds as early as they did during the week. She had spent so much time at Ryan's bedside she knew the routine.

"They took my stitches out," Ryan said, pulling the covers off, exposing what was left of his right leg.

Barb examined his stump. Someone had removed his stitches. She braced herself waiting for him to ask more questions. Would this be the day he asked her why they took his leg and if she had anything to do with it? Instead, Ryan told her he had asked the doctor for a copy of his accident's police report. He told Ryan he didn't have the report.

"I want to see the police report, Barb."

She knew this was the cop in him coming back. But she didn't want him to read it -- especially the one the State Highway Patrol investigators were putting together. It was gruesome. Reading it had given her nightmares and launched her into a thousand "what ifs."

What if Ryan had stopped and used the bathroom before flagging speeders on I-71? Would he have escaped the whole accident? Would the driver who hit him, have crashed into the guardrail instead? What if Ryan had approached the speeder from the passenger side instead of the driver's side? Would he have been able to escape? What if Ryan's friend had taken his shift that day after all? These scenarios drove her crazy. She didn't want Ryan to suffer any more than he already was.

She decided to change the subject. "The Police and Fire department sent me flowers for Mother's Day," Barb said.

Ryan stared at her, trying to take it in.

"I'm sorry I didn't send you flowers," Ryan said.

"I think you're excused this year," Barb said, hugging him, gently. Because of his vertebrae injury, he wore a plastic brace that encased his upper body. He hugged her back, grimacing with pain. An instant later, his mood changed. Ryan became aggravated. The tone of his voice angry.

"Babe, it's OK," she assured him. Ryan began to moan, complaining of pain in his amputated leg. "Relax, relax," she said. This man she held now wasn't anything like the "old Ryan." The Ryan she married wasn't "Mister Rogers," but he was the happy-go-lucky one in their relationship. She was the uptight and high-strung one; Ryan balanced and mellowed her out. Whenever she would get in one of her moods, he would tell her, "Relax. Just relax."

"Oowww. Owww. Oooow," Ryan moaned, holding his stump, thrashing back and forth. The phantom pain was back. He said it felt like someone was sticking a knife into his foot.

"Relax, babe. Just relax. Everything's OK," Barb said.

Now it was her job to make them both relax.

That same night, she brought the kids to the hospital to see Ryan. The kids chattered excitedly about seeing Daddy the whole 40-minute trip from their home to the hospital.

Before the accident, Emma was becoming "Daddy's girl," wanting Ryan, whenever he was home, to play with her, get her juice, dress her, put her to bed. Barb would tease Ryan that she was "losing her little girl."

But when Barb stepped off the elevator and the kids saw their dad, they grabbed hold of her legs. Zachary reluctantly moved toward his dad. Barb picked up Emma, who buried her face in Barb's shoulder. Barb put Emma down and lifted Zach onto the arm of Ryan's wheelchair. Ryan reached for Emma, who pulled away.

"I'm scared of that daddy," Emma screamed. "I don't like that daddy." Barb walked beside her, coaxing her to get near Ryan. She wouldn't.

"No, no, no," Emma cried. "That's not my daddy."

Ryan began to weep.

Day 36, Barb thought, while helping Ryan in physical therapy. She told herself she had to stop counting the number of days. It wasn't healthy. She couldn't help it. Thirty-six days since the day my old life stopped.

"Can I ride a motorcycle with a prosthetic leg?" Ryan asked the physical therapist.

"What did you say?" Barb asked. "Do you know how many people who have been in motorcycle accidents they've put back together again in this place?" Ryan's desire to own a motorcycle was an argument they had been having for over two years. Before discovering Barb was pregnant with Emma, Ryan wanted a motorcycle. Not only did Barb fear for his safety, but they also couldn't afford it.

They had undergone two years of expensive fertility treatments, which failed. They decided to adopt instead. That process wasn't cheap. Once home from Russia with Zach, they discovered she was pregnant with Emma. Having two babies, less than a year apart put Ryan's dream of a motorcycle on hold. He called Emma "Suzuki" just to tease Barb.

"Well? Can I ride a motorcycle with a fake leg?" Ryan asked again. The therapist nodded yes.

"Barb, relax," Ryan said. "How likely do you think it is that a guy like me would be in two catastrophic accidents?"

She smiled. It was the first time in 36 days she saw a glimmer of his old personality.

Two weeks ago, Ryan had an "eight-hour pass" to leave the hospital. Ryan wanted to go home. Barb called it a trial run. Ryan called it freedom.

As Barb pulled into their driveway and opened the garage, Ryan asked why their truck was sitting outside. Then he saw it: The 10-foot ramp his friends built.

"I'm not going to be in this wheelchair forever," Ryan scolded. Barb assured him it was temporary, but Ryan was no longer listening. He was too upset.

Barb helped him from the car to his wheelchair, rolled him up the ramp and into the house. Zach ran toward his dad and asked, "What happened to your leg?"

Zach took off to play. Ryan struggled not to cry.

"Ry, it's OK," Barb said. "He's only 3 so he's going to ask you again. Why don't you tell him you had a really bad boo-boo on your leg and the doctors had to cut it off because it was so bad?" Ryan then noticed another ramp from the kitchen to the great room and that all the furniture had been moved to make room for his wheelchair.

"Barb, this chair is only temporary," he scolded again. All the guests were outside on the deck. But getting Ryan outside was hard. His chair barely fit through the door and there was a slight step. The men stepped forward to lift his chair.

Once outside, everyone took turns hugging and welcoming him. Barb had planned for everyone to eat lunch and then leave. They wanted to be alone.

"Hey, Barb. I heard you had to sign the paperwork to give the doctors permission to cut off my leg," Ryan said, over the noise.

Everyone stopped talking. No one moved. Barb felt like she couldn't breathe.

"There was nothing I could do. It was either your leg or your life," she said, backing away from the crowd. "It was just a formality." And then she was in the house, safe from what she thought would be his next question: Why did you do that? Enough time had passed for her to come to terms with her decision. She was glad she saved his life, no matter how hard their future might be. She knew his brain injury caused him to say the darnedest things. She was going to chalk up this heartless comment and its timing to that.

When Ryan had to use the restroom, his wheelchair couldn't make the turn down the narrow hall of their home. Ryan listened helplessly as everyone strategized how best to get him into the powder room, as though he wasn't there. Is this what my future holds? Needing help and relying on someone else to do everything? Ryan thought. I can't do this. This is going to be too hard.

Barb noticed Ryan had gotten quiet and asked if he was OK. She worried he was getting tired.

When the guests left, Barb helped Ryan onto the couch. In the days leading up to this, he had told her that lying next to her was something he missed.

"Is everything OK?" Barb asked. He was so quiet.

"Yeah," Ryan said. I can't live like a cripple. I can't do this, he thought.

As soon as Ryan was lying down, Barb lay down next to him, closed her eyes and savored his touch.

"I wish you had just let me die," Ryan said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

dkeough@plaind.com, 216-999-4927

Part Three Click Here