A lifelong caregiver asks, “What Would Ryan Do?”
In February 2021, Amy Ericksen, a nurse working with homebound patients, left a patient’s home and her car skidded out on black ice.
She hit a tree, and when the chaos of the crash subsided, Ericksen immediately knew there was something much worse than a wrecked vehicle.
“I knew I was paralyzed,” she says,” relaying that she couldn’t move. Ericksen suffered a C5 through C7 fracture with an incomplete spinal cord injury (SCI).
SCI Rehab Delayed
After her SCI surgery, Ericksen went inpatient rehabilitation for three weeks. “But there was a problem,” says Ericksen. “I had a radial wrist fracture. Because of that, I couldn’t use crutches, or walkers, or PT devices.” She was sent to a nursing home for a month so her wrist could heal.
But she received very little therapy during that stay.
After Ericksen’s wrist healed, she entered UPMC’s inpatient rehabilitation program. “That’s where I got the big guns!” laughs Ericksen. “I had a really good skill team, great medical care, and the therapists were awesome!”
Ericksen spent six weeks in UPMC. “I learned to walk again—I entered in a wheelchair and left using a walker!”
“I could only take a couple steps with the walker,” she notes, “but it was still a major, major milestone.”
Following in Famous Footsteps
Ericksen knew Ryan Shazier received all his care at UPMC. “I knew that I was in good hands, because I read (on the UPMC website) about how excellent his progress was.”
She knew all SCI injuries are different, “But I was excited to go there, because Ryan goes there too.”
Ericksen channeled her “inner Shalieve” in the outpatient gym. She would use a machine, or perform an exercise and think, “I wonder if Ryan used this, and that’s how he got strong?”
What Would Ryan Do?
She also saw photos of Shazier with her PT team, so she started asking about Shazier’s performance and recovery utilizing same modalities. “I kept bugging my PT about Ryan,” she quips, “I would ask if Ryan used the equipment, and how he did…you know?”
Ericksen also committed to working her program like a pro athlete. She would push herself to go beyond the scope of the minimum requirements, most of the time asking herself, “What Would Ryan Do?”
Ericksen’s good-natured persistence regarding her “WWRD—What Would Ryan Do?” eventually paid off.
An Uplifting Surprise
Ericksen’s PT must have sent Shazier an email about her, her condition, and her recent challenges.
“I got a surprise!” she beams, “Ryan was in his car and sent me this little uplifting video message to me, and ohmygosh it just cheered me up!” Ericksen lights up when she talks about her initial encounter with Shazier. “Every time I was done with therapy, I played his message. It was so inspirational.”
One-on-One Ryan Time
Soon after that video message, Amy Ericksen had her opportunity to chat one-on-one with Shazier in his newly launched initiative simply called “Ryan Time.” Shazier spends 30-60 minutes meeting with SCI warriors that are facing the unique challenges for which only another person with a paralyzing condition can relate.
“Oh, that was so great!” exclaims Ericksen. “Ryan just devotes his time (to us). He’s smart and he’s wise.” She appreciates that Shazier saw that others were struggling with rehab. “He isn’t focused on only himself, but he really wants to know other people’s stories.”
Although Ericksen says she was “super nervous” for her “Ryan Time” session, the butterflies settled down and she said her conversation with the Pittsburgh Steeler Pro Bowler was “super special to me.”
Ericksen says Shazier relayed to her his own situation and how he got through challenges. “That gave me inspiration.” At one point the two compared “walking milestones.” “When I told him mine, he said, ‘You know, I don’t think I was walking that far at that point (in his rehabilitation journey).”
Ericksen still faces challenges, as nearly all SCI warriors will post-injury. But the inspiration she got from her “Ryan Time” session encouraged her to think beyond the confines of her injury.
Ericksen is still in outpatient physical therapy at UPMC twice a week, for which she is grateful.
Ericksen plans to enroll in occupational vocation rehabilitation. “I know I can do computer nursing,” she muses, noting that she needs to learn strategies to deal with typing, as her hands are affected from the SCI injury.
Another goal is to lessen her dependence on a wheelchair. “I didn’t think I could do this, but after talking to Ryan, and seeing what others have done, I am encouraged to try!”
Besides Shazier, Ericksen was also taken with the other SCI warriors that visited the unit to offer their stories of strength, courage, and hope.
“I’d love to do peer counseling and offer others the same positive outlook that Ryan and the others offered me.”
And with such a renewed positive outlook, plus her desire to carry her “Ryan Time” beyond herself, there’s no doubt the nurse in Amy Ericksen will find a place in her new SCI world.
Amy Ericksen’s Shalieve Wisdom
Use your support system. “Talk to other patients, talk to the staff, talk to—and listen to others. Not only so you can feel better, but so you can learn, and maybe help someone else feel better too.”
Learn what makes you feel better. “I can get anxious, worried or a little depressed, so I find activities that keep my mind happy and positive. I try to treat others like I would want to be treated.”
It does get better. “I would tell anyone, ‘Right now it’s going to be hard, but it will get better,’ That’s not easy to hear, but I’m less than a year out from my injury, and it is already improving.”