By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
MARYSVILLE — Alex Ryan needs a little help remembering how to start the day.
There’s a list on a white board that hangs on his bedroom wall opposite the Beatles poster and above the food bowl for his Chihuahua, Mini Ninja.
“Shower, put on deodorant, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth.”
The once-reflexive routine is a daily challenge for the 22-year-old. Then again, nearly everything is more difficult for the Marysville man since June 9, 2012.
The life he had was stolen that night.
Neighbors heard the noise, the bone-crushing impact. The battered bodies of three young men were left scattered on the road. Shane Santos, 18, was dead. His friends, Alex Ryan and Jerad Clawson, were unconscious.
The drunken driver stopped only long enough for his passenger to jump out and see the crumpled figures on Shoultes Road. He cursed, and the pair sped off, but their car hit a tree a little farther down the road. Blood tests later confirmed that Terrence Olesen, the driver, was heavily intoxicated following hours drinking vodka and beer.
It isn’t enough time for what he’s done, Teresa Vantrece said recently of the man who caused her son’s traumatic brain injury.
“He left them there. I don’t understand how you can do that to another human being,” she said. “He has no idea how much pain he caused.”
Her son sums it up in a few words.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” he said.
Vantrece and her husband had spent the day getting the back yard ready for a party. Their daughter LaKrista was graduating from Marysville Getchell High School in four days. Relatives were coming from out of town to celebrate.
The Vantreces were in bed when the phone rang around 11:30 p.m. The caller identification showed their middle son’s cellphone number. He had told them he was spending the weekend with friends and not to expect him home until Monday.
“What do you want?” Gary Vantrece remembers asking, thinking his son had called for a late-night ride.
A stranger answered. She was a nurse in Everett and there had been an accident. Three young men were badly hurt. The cellphone was found near one of them. The nurse had dialed the number listed under “Dad.”
Teresa Vantrece heard the words “son” and “accident.” She didn’t wait for her husband to hang up. She grabbed clothes and shoes. “Hurry. You have to hurry,” she thought.
Panic mixed with fear and a surge of adrenaline.
“Please let it just be a broken arm, or something minor,” she thought.
At the hospital, the Vantreces were told that one of the men didn’t survive, a second had a severe head injury and the other had multiple broken bones.
“We waited 20 minutes at Providence to find out which boy was ours,” Teresa Vantrece said recently. Her eyes welled up at a memory, one with edges that time has not softened.
She was led back to the hospital room. Her son was on life support. His right leg was broken and his brain was swelling. He needed to be moved to Harborview Medical Center, the Seattle hospital with the state’s most advanced level of trauma care.
“It was a blur, talking to police and doctors,” she said.
Her son was loaded into an ambulance, and she climbed in beside him. If he didn’t survive, she needed to be there.
At Harborview, the doctors didn’t offer the Vantreces much hope. Their son’s brain wasn’t showing any signs of activity. There were a few more tests to do to determine whether he was brain dead. The Vantreces were told to start thinking about removing him from life support, and asked whether he was a designated organ donor.
“We weren’t going to make any decisions until after the tests,” Teresa Vantrece said.
At first, her brother’s body didn’t respond to the electrical impulses, 19-year-old LaKrista Vantrece recalled. There was no movement from his legs or his arms. Then his shoulder and finger twitched. There was hope in those twitches.
Doctors decided to remove a piece of Ryan’s skull to help relieve the pressure on his brain. They cut out bone, from forehead to crown, from ear to ear. The surgery didn’t come with any promises.
“We had to wait and see,” Teresa Vantrece said.
Ryan remained in a medically induced coma for weeks, breathing through a respirator. He was attached to other tubes and wires, monitoring his condition. Photographs from those days show a broken young man surrounded by machines. His family watched as he spiked fevers, received blood transfusions and was treated for a collapsed lung.
His parents took shifts at the hospital. They were needed at home, too. They have a younger son, then 15, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
By week three, doctors discontinued the medication keeping Ryan comatose.
It isn’t like a movie. He didn’t immediately wake up.
“His eyes were open, but he had this vacant stare. He wasn’t there,” Teresa Vantrece said.
Then one day, while she was speaking with her husband on the phone, she noticed that Ryan seemed to be mimicking her facial expressions. She asked him to raise his eyebrows. He wiggled his brows. She asked again, then a third time. She called for a nurse. There was hope in those eyebrows.
Eventually, he was stable enough to be moved to another hospital. That’s where doctors discovered that both arms and his left leg were broken.
It also was there that his family witnessed extreme episodes of “storming.” Ryan pulled at the wires and tubes attached to his body. He lashed out at nurses and thrashed in bed. He yanked out a tracheal tube and feeding line.
When his mom wasn’t at his bedside, his hands were restrained to prevent him from hurting himself. His parents were told that the outbursts were normal for someone with a severe head injury. “Normal” was taking on a new meaning for the Vantreces as they watched their son suffer.
There were victories, though. After two months in the hospital, Ryan’s speech was returning. The words came slowly: “Hello,” “Yes,” and “I’m OK.”
He left his sister a voice mail. He spoke a few words in Spanish even though he’d never taken a class. He told her he loved her. The college sophomore still has the message on her phone.
Ryan later was moved to a rehabilitation center at Providence. He needed to relearn how to walk and care for himself.
“It was almost like he was a toddler again,” his mom said.
She saw her son’s frustration and agitation. Before he was hit, Ryan was always on the go, walking or riding his skateboard around town. He and his buddies would practice shuffling, a dance popular among ravers. Ryan had just turned 21 with plans to join Job Corps and get his high school diploma. He talked about becoming a chef.
Instead, he was relearning how to hold a fork and spoon to feed himself.
The injury affected his attitude. “He would get belligerent,” his mom said.
To calm him, his family sang and read from children’s books. “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Suess was in heavy rotation. It was a book Ryan had loved as a kid. His parents discovered their son’s attention span was limited. The 62-page book was short enough that he could follow along.
Once he was at the rehabilitation center, Teresa Vantrece told her son what put him there. He hadn’t asked. He only asked when he could go home.
He doesn’t remember the accident or being left for dead. His mom told him about his friend.
“It was hard for him to process what happened to Shane,” she said.
Three months after he was hit, Ryan came home.
He had lost about 50 pounds from his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. Down to 125 pounds, he was “skin and bones,” his mom said. He had a jagged scar across his head. His brain had been bruised, weakening his left side and leaving him deaf in his right ear. He used a wheelchair and needed constant supervision. His parents put a baby monitor in his room so they could hear him call out. He wore a helmet to protect his head, still missing a large chunk of bone.
Toward the end of 2012, the doctors reattached the preserved “bone flap.”
A short time later, Ryan began suffering grand mal seizures. Doctors discovered an infection and removed the bone again.
“We were back to square one,” Gary Vantrece said.
Ryan was hospitalized for two weeks and spent another month in the rehabilitation center. He became even more irritable and withdrawn.
“You could see the frustration,” Teresa Vantrece said. “He still wants to live and be out there. He knows physically and mentally he is limited. Sometimes he takes it out on us.”
Robbed of his independence, Ryan relies on his parents and siblings to help him get around. There are moments of embarrassment and frustration. And there is the challenge of accepting limitations.
He recently explained the whistle lying on his pillow. He needs help sometimes.
“You know, if I want something to eat,” he said.
He is a different kid, his parents said.
“You try to get them raised and independent once,” Gary Vantrece said. “You’re not supposed to have to do it twice.”
Ryan doesn’t like to be away from home for long stretches. Loud noises and crowds are too much for him. He loses focus in conversations. He gets agitated. His words sometimes can be hurtful, something that isn’t easy for his younger brother to understand.
His parents juggle their schedules so someone is always home with him. That means no more family camping trips or vacations. A night out for mom and dad is rare.
His parents also work to keep their son motivated.
“We have our good days. We have our bad days,” Gary Vantrece said.
Ryan is afraid to fall. He is reluctant to put pressure on his legs. He still uses a wheelchair and pulls himself up the stairs in the family home. He is too heavy for his dad to carry anymore.
“That ramp out there is temporary because my son is going to walk again,” Gary Vantrece said.
Ryan, wearing a brace on his right leg after another surgery, said he will walk around the hospital without a walker one day. When?
“Tomorrow,” he shot back.
There are more surgeries on the horizon. Earlier this month, Ryan underwent a procedure to stretch the skin on his head to help make room for a prosthetic to replace the bone piece still missing from his skull. His parents are hopeful that if the prosthetic works out, Ryan will be able to refocus on walking again and gaining more independence.
“Only time will tell. I don’t think he’ll be the kid he once was, though,” his mom said. “His personality has changed.”
Doctors say that isn’t uncommon for patients with a traumatic brain injury. Again, his parents are left with uncertainty.
“It’s still wait and see,” she said.
Ryan is more certain about the future. He wants to become a famous chef or musician. He wants to buy a mansion with room for his parents. One day, he’ll cook lobster.
His parents have learned not to make plans.
“I think we’re living day to day. He is our kid and there’s no getting around what we have to get through. I hope for the best. That’s all I can do is hope,” Teresa Vantrece said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.