​Peer & Family Support Spotlight: Lorrie Ryan

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on November 18, 2021 # Peer & Family Support Program Spotlight

Man and woman sitting on a couch reading a book. The man's arm is around the woman's shoulders. There is a wheelchair off to the side of them.On September 17, 2020, Lorrie Ryan received a phone call every mother fears. Her 40-year-old son, Dan, was in a hospital in Austin, Texas – hundreds of miles away from her home in central Florida.

"I picked up the phone and heard Dan's girlfriend crying," Lorrie says. "Right away, I suspected COVID-19." But Drew told Lorrie that Dan had hopped on his motorcycle to drive the short distance to help her with a blowout tire when a young driver cut in front of him to make a left turn.

"Drew was waiting for him to arrive when she heard a siren. Then she checked his location on the app they shared and saw him traveling away from her, toward the hospital," Lorrie says. "The doctor said Dan would never walk again and that he needed immediate surgery on his spinal column."

With so many miles between Lorrie and Dan, she felt helpless. She waited until Dan's five-hour operation was over, then she and her husband, Don, packed up their camper and drove across the country to their son. "We didn't know where we would stay, or how long we'd be there, but we drove right into a hurricane to get there," says Lorrie.

When the couple arrived at the hospital two days later, they had no idea what to expect. Their younger son, Keith, had flown from Boston to Austin after learning about the accident. He sent Lorrie a picture, but she couldn't look at it. When she finally entered his room in the Intensive Care Unit, she saw Dan hooked to countless wires and tubes. "All I wanted to do was change places with him," Lorrie says. Since that wasn't an option, she stayed by his bedside.

One of the first things Dan told Lorrie was that he'd planned to propose to Drew in October. "He was afraid that wouldn't happen now," Lorrie says.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only one family member could be in the ICU with Dan each day, so Lorrie, Don, Keith and Drew took turns caring for Dan. "We chose the rehab hospital down the street because I didn't realize we had a choice of hospitals. My husband received the list," Lorrie says. "If COVID hadn't been a factor, we may have explored other options."

Lorrie learned about the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation from a binder staff gave her at the rehab facility. "I started reading through the binder with the huge print and oversized pictures and thought, 'no, this couldn't possibly pertain to my son, Dan,'" Lorrie says. "I really thought that a miracle would happen. Maybe he would lose sensation in his legs, but he would bounce back. Learning how the injury affected every part of his body was heartbreaking."

As the weather changed from summer heat to winter chill, Lorrie and Don remained in Austin with Dan and Drew. After six weeks, Dan moved from the rehab facility back home, but that was traumatizing, too. Dan's coughing mechanism didn't work because of paralysis in his trunk, so he was choking a lot. "Without staff to help, we didn't know what to do," Lorrie says.

But Dan is an independent soul, and he took control. The first thing he did was hire someone to pave his gravel driveway. Then each family member took on a job to help Dan bathe and release his bowel and bladder, a process that can take up much of the day. Lorrie and Don were both retired and Drew quit her job as a nanny. Dan had around-the-clock attention and assistance from three loving family members.

But it was still a challenge. Lorrie worried most about infection. She also became the "water police," making sure Dan took in enough water, but not too much; Lorrie was also concerned about depressurizing. "If you're on the bed or a chair, you have to depressurize every 15 to 30 minutes," she says. "I was constantly questioning Dan, 'did you do your catheter? Did you do your pressure release? Did you get enough water?'" she says. "He finally said to me, 'Mom, you know I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life; I need to be responsible for this myself.'" That was the gamechanger for Lorrie.

She backed off Dan and leaned into the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, first to research treatments and clinical trials and then as a lifeline for her own struggles. "The Peer & Family Support Program through the Reeve Foundation has been my rock," Lorrie says. "When I connected with people who can really relate, I finally felt like I could breathe. It was like a release."

As for Dan, he was working from his hospital bed the day he got out of the ICU, and is now back to working full time at his job as a programmer for a medical billing company. While he's disappointed that he hasn't regained movement or sensation in most of his body, the injury hasn't altered his spirit. "He has amazing strength," Lorrie says. "He was even synthesizing music from his hospital bed." During his recovery process, Drew told him, “We’re on this journey together." Dan proposed to her on December 25, and she accepted.

Lorrie realizes now that spinal cord injury can happen to anyone at any time. Yet, at the end of the day, she has hope. "With the tremendous medical breakthroughs that are happening today, spinal cord injury is due for a cure," Lorrie says. "That's what I try to focus on; that's what gets me through."

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.