I want to share my life experience as a cautionary tale of how your life can change in a split second. Adversity can be overcome with an indomitable spirit and positive mental attitude and I want to serve as an inspirational role model to others. – Ryan Stoltz
The minute that drastically changed my life occurred eighteen days before the beginning of my senior year in high school on the morning of July 13, 1997. The summer of my Junior year I got a job as a groundskeeper at Mickey Grove Park/Zoo golf course in Lodi, California in the San Joaquin Valley. During the week I’d work 8 hours a day but on weekends I’d work from 4:30 AM to 8:30 AM. On that Sunday morning in July I went in to work. I had spent the night up at Lake Camanche with some friends, and left there that morning to make it to work by 4:30. I have no memory of it. My friends told my parents that I had not been drinking because I had to leave so early for work. Upon leaving work at 8:30 AM, I pulled my car (a 300ZX) onto Mickey Grove Road. Whatever happened in those next few seconds, I do not know, but the result was that…
suddenly my car slid across the road and the passenger side impacted on the rock wall entrance going into the zoo/park (less than 2/10 of a mile). My supervisor and other employees heard the crash, someone said, “that’s Ryan! And, they all came running.
This was told to my mom by my supervisor, later. My eyes were open but I was not talking. My boss said my seat belt was on, and I was told later if I had not been wearing my seat belt I would have been ejected from the car and I would not have made it. They intubated me at the scene and was taken to Lodi Memorial Hospital Emergency Room.
Seat belts only keep you from going forward, not side-to-side. The car was an older model that did not have all those extra air bags. If it had, the outcome could have been different. Everything of what I know about that day, and the 10 months that followed in the hospital, has been re-told to me many times is from what those around me have told me because my memory has not been the same since that day. To give you some perspective on my life I will flash back to the beginning, with the help of my mom’s recollections. I was named Ryan Lee Stoltz, (Lee after my grandfather on my grandma’s side). I was born on January 25th, 1980 at Vandenberg Air force Base, in Vandenburg, California. I arrived at 10:10 p.m. on a Friday night. I was two weeks overdue, my grandma Louise (Cornelia Louise) was there waiting for my birth – but I took so long she had to return home to Fortuna. It’s always been a family joke – that I was just waiting for her to leave because as soon as my dad and her left for the airport, my mom went into full labor. At three days old, a helicopter team took me away to Fresno Valley Children’s Hospital where I stayed for a week. They thought I might have suffered some kind of head trauma when I was born. In addition, my mom had had a stillborn baby before me. So the doctors were extra careful and had me sent out. After a week I passed all the tests and got to go home. However, the doctor told my parents that I might be a “little slow” when I started school. But that prediction didn’t happen.
Ryan with his Grandma Louise and Grandpa Chuck
My Dad (Bill) got out of the Air Force in 1981 and we moved back to Humboldt County. My mom and dad divorced and in 1983 my mom met my step-dad, (Claude). I went to Kindergarten in Eureka. That summer we moved to Antioch, California where I attended 1st – 7th grade. I played football starting at age 9, and played through my sophomore year. I played t-ball, little league baseball, and all stars. I played basketball though my sophomore year of high school also.
Ryan plays tackle football ages 9-10
The summer after my 7th grade, we moved across the delta to Lodi, California (in the San Joaquin Valley). I attended 8th grade at Lodi Middle School, then went to Tokay High for the freshman and sophomore year. During that summer I convinced my mom to let me transfer schools to Lodi High. High school, for the most part, had been a good experience for me. I had a best friend named Albert Escalante. I was friends with the kids at both high schools in the area. They had all grown up together, but went to different schools because of where they lived in town.
Ryan with Friends
I liked the subjects of math and Spanish and actively participated in three sports. I was in good physical shape. I was a shortstop for the baseball team, a running back and quarterback for the football team and a point guard in basketball.
Ryan before the accident at the Prom
But when I transferred to Lodi, the school officials would not let me play sports my Junior year. That was upsetting. My mom tried everything, but that was the rule.
Because of my accident, I was in the hospital for 10 ½ months and I missed my whole senior year of high school.
I was able to return to high school in September 1998, an orthopedically handicapped program offered at Bear Creek High School. I stayed there for two years receiving speech therapy daily, counseling, occupational and physical therapy. My hospital stay is just a blurred memory in my mind, but my parents told me about that time. It was hard on my parents, especially my mom. She stayed by my side while my dad worked. They were very supportive. Both of my parents worked at the hospital. My mom had worked there for 8 years and my dad at the pediatric clinic. So, all the nurses and doctors in the ER that morning knew my mom. When they looked at my insurance card in my walled they saw I was her son. My parents had left earlier that morning at 6:30 AM to drive to Ukiah to meet their best friends for a day visit. My parents didn’t come back to Lodi until 4:20 PM that day. My friend and neighbor Danni kept a watch on our house and went to them to give them the news as soon as they pulled up in the driveway. Danni’s mom took my parents to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton, California, 10 miles from Lodi. I had been transferred there earlier in the day after being in the E.R. By the time my parents got to the hospital, I was on the ventilator, and had an IV in my head to monitor the swelling pressure from my head trauma. It seems that my head was the only thing I had hurt in the wreck, but it was a traumatic brain injury (T.B.I.). Doctors told my parents I would not live and requested permission to donate my body organs to people waiting for transplants. The damage to the inside of my brain was major. The doctor said the brain stem could herniate (explode). The neurosurgeon told my step-dad to talk to my mom into “turning the vent off.” He (my dad) told him to forget about that! There was almost a complete “shearing” of the “pons” that is about as big as a fist and sits on top of the brainstem. There was a minimum of 10 large areas of contusion. (bruising/bleeding) thru out the brain. I remained in the Respiratory Intensive Care Unit for forty-one days. I came off the ventilator on day eight and continued to breathe on my own. But the pressure inside my brain kept rising. Normally, the “ICP” (Intracranial Pressure) in a person’s brain is around ‘16’. Mine stayed in the 30’s – 40’s and went up into the ‘70’s.
It took 10 days before the brain swelling stopped increasing. It was then that they started to try to wake me up. They took away all the drugs with which they had sedated me. My mom said she just knew I was going to wake up and start my senior year with all my friends in two weeks. But I did not. I did open my eyes, would turn my head to certain noise, especially my step-dad’s (Dad’s) voice, but nothing else. There was no following any simple commands or anything. My mom knew the medical personnel who cared for me.
The doctors and the neurologist came to evaluate my brain activity. My mom remembers the neurologist crying with her.
But my mom was determined. My parents never gave up hope and remained determined that I would persevere against all odds to live my life. After the first 41 days I was moved to Santa Clara Valley medical center. It was rated number 18 in rehabilitation in the nation. Although I didn’t meet the “real criteria”, my mom knew the people there and that helped me get into the rehabilitation center. I stayed there for eleven weeks. It was there that I “woke up” – to some degree. I was able to follow some simple commands, like to “squeeze hand”, or “shake head yes or no” appropriately. I was not able to talk yet. I had to sit in a special chair with a frame and helmet for six weeks to be able to “hold my head up” again. All of my limbs were “cast” to prevent them from contractions. I also had 14 spinal taps while there, constantly monitoring my cerebrospinal fluid in my brain. It was at that hospital that I had my first seizure. That’s why I have to take Dilantin for the rest of my life. After eleven weeks there I was transferred back to Lodi, into Lodi Memorial Hospital West Campus (where the acute physical rehabilitation unit was.) It was only down the street from my house, so it was great for my parents, family and friends. Two weeks later my tracheotomy tube was plugged and I started to talk.
My mom screamed the first night she got me to a make sound. I said “mom”.
I knew my family. I had a hard time putting the right names with the faces for my friends. I told my mom “she wasn’t my real mom.” I don’t know why. But just before the accident I had been talking to a Marine recruiter and my mom was very unhappy about that. Since I had been physically fit at the time of the accident I was able to survive. However, I sustained a traumatic brain injury and I had to learn everything over, like a baby. I had almost three years of physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
In the beginning I couldn’t do anything by myself. I was like a seventeen-year old newborn baby.
An important turning point came in my progress when my mom discovered HBO (Hyperbaric Oxygenation Therapy). Although it was difficult to obtain at the time, the positive effect of that therapy was that oxygen was forced into tissues at the cellular level eventually making it possible for me to get out of my wheelchair and walk again. For more information on this important medical development, please see the HBO page on this blog, because it could be life changing knowledge for those with a traumatic brain injury or a stroke.
My balance is greatly affected and walking is hard. My speech – thought process was interrupted by the TBI as a result of the accident which makes everyday tasks more hard and difficult.
Ryan in 2002
Since I missed graduating with all my peers and friends a wonderful thing happened. I did get to attend that graduation. The ceremony was dedicated to “me”. A wonderful speech was given. I was an honored guest down on the field with everyone. I was determined to get my high school diploma. I already had my credits but I wanted to finish and hear my name called on the loud speaker. Before my accident I had attended two high schools by my choice. They were Lodi and Tokay. But after my accident I attended Bear Creek School in an orthopedically handicapped program in Stockton, California. It was there that I earned my high school diploma.
I was able to hear my name over the loud speaker as a graduate.
In my life now I keep active.
Ryan at the Humboldt County Fair
Ryan and friend Liz
After waking up each day, I get dressed, go to the bathroom and brush my teeth, wash my face and take care of any other needs. Then I go back and find out what day it is, and check out my schedule. Monday through Thursday I go to work starting out at 7 in the morning, arriving at Reaching for Independence https://www.facebook.com/ReachingForIndependenceInc , and working until 3. On Monday and Wednesday evenings I attend a group for those with traumatic brain injuries.
When I first started to attend the group it was a source of encouragement for me because I realized I wasn’t the only one coping with a brain injury.
On Fridays I go to the art studio http://www.thestudioonline.org/ and it gives me something to do. On Saturdays I am picked up at 10 a.m. by someone from the regional center and we run my errands and deal with tasks that need attention. I also have some chores that I do on Saturday. Sunday is my free day, a day to relax. When asked why I have a positive attitude I have to say it is because both of my parents. My mom and my dad are both in the medical field – they are nurses. They were able to tell me from their experiences that there were others who had similar accidents and didn’t make it – it helped me to know that.
What I want people to know from the experience of surviving my car wreck is to not give up. Even though I was in the hospital for a long time my parents didn’t give up, and I didn’t give up. Don’t give up on things.
I want to share my story in hopes that it will save someone else from going through the same experiences that I have gone through.
Ryan as a ‘Zombie’ at a Halloween party.
Ryan and brother Marcus on Ryan’s 35th birthday.
Sculpture by Ryan Stoltz
Sculpture by Ryan Stoltz
Header Photo: Romain Drapri