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Melrose Cyclist On the Road to Recovery After Spinal Cord Injury

Ryan DeRoche's family and the Melrose community unite to organize a fundraiser in support of DeRoche's rallying to regain his motor functions.

In March, when Ryan DeRoche entered Spaulding Rehab for treatment of a spinal cord injury, his family had to limit visitors. Ryan’s mother, Diane, turned away well-wishers with reminders that Ryan had to rest; each day, she knew, would be filled with physical and occupational therapy, consultations with doctors, and the downtime her son would need after a day of exertion. 

Still, the crowds kept coming. The day Melrose Patch arrived, Chris Angelli and Bob Morrissey appeared for one of their thrice-weekly visits, ready to fill their own prescription for Ryan’s recovery—dinner and good conversation. Sometimes the fare is take-out, sometimes it’s home cooking from Angelli’s girlfriend Traci who, all agree, makes a “wicked chicken parm.”

“What a crowd, huh?” one visitor asked.

“No!” they cried. “There’s usually five or six of us.”

Diane DeRoche says she no longer worries that Ryan will tire after the tide of visits, for it’s clear they’re a boost to his health. Supporters include coworkers, neighbors, and classmates from and . Father Ron and sister Kerri often bring along nieces and nephews MacKenzie, Shayne, Avery, and Aiden. 

Friends or family, the atmosphere is charged with good news and good humor, with conversation turning toward Ryan’s progress, happenings in Melrose, and whether the June 25 fundraiser, held at the VFW in Tewksbury, will feature celebrity guests.

The day everything changed

Despite their cheer, however, everyone is hyper-aware of  the event that brought them together.

It was March 6. Ryan, an avid cyclist, was living north of Barcelona in Girona, Spain. A logistics planner for Trek Travel, a global firm specializing in cycling vacations, DeRoche rode everywhere. As was his habit, when the workday ended he climbed on his bike and pedaled home.

“What happened then, we don’t know and Ryan doesn’t quite remember,” said Diane, from her regular perch at the table in the ninth-floor visitors’ lounge. “Whether it was a rock or a rut, it caused Ryan to stop short. He went over the handlebars and landed on his neck.” (Yes, he was wearing a helmet.) 

Ryan fractured two bones in his neck (cervical vertebrae C3 and C5) and shattered another (C4). Surgeons in Spain fused C3 and C5. On March 28, when his condition had stabilized, he was flown via MedFlight to Boston.

“Technically, I’m a quadriplegic,” he said, “but I have certain movement and sensation in areas below the level of my injury, and [my condition] changes all the time.” Ryan’s arms and hands are weak, as are the muscles of his legs. He has some sensation and movement in each limb; however,  "sensation," he says, is hard to describe. In areas where he cannot feel, say, a pin-prick, he can nevertheless sense the touch of a person’s hand.

Functionally, he’s made progress that's quite advanced, especially considering the scope and date of his injury. “When I first got here, my hands were like claws, but now they’re opening,” he said, as he extended his fingers. In a display of renewed dexterity, he tapped his iPhone screen with a stylus to silence a Dropkick Murphys song, then hooked his fingers under headphone cords to remove the ear buds.

Once an athlete, always an athlete

Before his accident, DeRoche was an active cyclist, competing in such charity cycling events as the Pan-Mass Challenge to benefit cancer research, the MS 150 to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the B2B  Brewery to Brewery tour, sponsored by the Harpoon Brewery, which supports a number of causes.

To his recovery he applies the same competitive dedication. 

Once a week, he climbs upon a Trek bike just like the one he used to ride. It’s attached to a harness and frame. Once strapped in, Ryan makes cycling movements in a form of therapy designed to reintegrate patients with activities they once used to enjoy, to stimulate body and brain.

He also uses the Lokomat, a form of locomotion therapy. The Lokomat employs computers that measure the body’s response to stimuli. The idea is to help the brain and spinal cord restore nerve signals interrupted by injury.

Ryan will train at Journey Forward, a facility in Canton which helps people with spinal cord injuries move beyond functionality to independence through intense, exercise-based therapy. This should help him in his transition to a new living space in Oak Grove Village.

‘Amazing experience’

Unlike some in his condition, DeRoche is not going to say he’s lucky. Nor will he say he’s unlucky, preferring to classify his accident as “an amazing experience.” Still processing what has happened, he is nevertheless certain of the growth in self-awareness resulting from his injury. “I’m not going to say I was a bad person before all of this occurred,” he said. “But I will be a better person.”

And at no time, said his mother, has she seen anger or bitterness; rather, “He’s maintained a great outlook. Ryan has never said ‘why me?'"

If such a thought has ever occurred to him, he has overlooked it to focus upon the attitudes of fellow patients, many of whom more severely injured than he, who have shown him the power of positive thinking. 

“I could see right away that people who have a good attitude heal faster than those who don’t."

DeRoche sees new purpose in his life. He compares rehabilitation to employment.

“There are people who get up and go to a job every day. I have a job, too. It's a different job, but it's a job—to walk again. Every day my first thought is, ‘I have to do this.’ And I will.”

Ryan’s Ride to Recovery fundraiser will be held Saturday, June 25, at Harold Parker State Forest in Andover. Participants may choose to ride, walk, or bike. An after-party will be held at the Tewksbury VFW, featuring dinner, drinks, a silent auction, and a raffle. For more information, visit Ryan’s Road to Recovery Facebook page.

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