FEATURE: Ryan Smith In Daily Hampshire Gazette
May 6, 2010
By Matt Vautour
AMHERST, Mass. It's impossible to tell just by looking at Ryan Smith that Florida headline writers once called him a miracle baby.
Watching him play lacrosse, or tennis or any of the other sports he's excelled at most of his life, it's even harder to believe that doctors once predicted that if he ever walked again he'd do so with a pronounced limp.
But Smith, a senior attackman for the University of Massachusetts men's lacrosse team, has been defying odds for most of his life.
In February 1990, Frank and Diane Smith of Dix Hills, N.Y., were vacationing in Florida with their two children, staying in a Pompano Beach Quality Inn just up Ocean Boulevard from the condominium owned by family friends Ronald and Susan Vercesi.
On the morning of Feb. 18, the Smiths and Vercesis went jogging together on the beach. The men went in one direction and their wives in the other.
Ryan, still a month short of his second birthday, played with his 4-year-old sister Jackie and their nanny Siobhan in Room 711. While his sister tried on sunglasses, Ryan wandered out to the balcony. When he leaned on the railing it gave way.
"I just remember a scream," Jackie said. "My baby-sitter picked me up and ran downstairs and there he was."
Studies later determined that the salt water from the nearby ocean had caused the railing to corrode, allowing Ryan to fall seven stories to the pool area below. That was more than twice as far as the fall that killed Eric Clapton's son at a similar age.
The impact against the concrete caused over 100 fractures in Ryan's body - including six vertebrae, a punctured liver and two collapsed lungs.
When Diane returned from her run, it didn't occur to her that the crowd, ambulance and police cars that had gathered had anything to do with her until she saw the diaper.
Ryan was wearing one with blue pinstripes, a product that only recently had come on the market. When Diane saw the diaper she panicked. She tried to run toward her son, but found her path blocked.
"A policeman grabbed me literally off my feet because they wouldn't let me near him. I could hear him calling me," said Diane, whose voice quivered as she described the 20-year-old memory. "They wouldn't let me near him because they didn't want him to move."
The paramedics wouldn't even let the Smiths in the ambulance as they continued to work on Ryan en route to Imperial Point Hospital.
"I went to the hospital in the back of a police car, praying the whole way," Diane said.
Doctors not optimistic
The Smiths didn't find out until later that the doctors weren't optimistic about their son's chances of survival when he arrived at the hospital.
He'd fractured four consecutive vertebrae, a condition many victims don't survive.
The Smiths continued praying in the hospital as they waited for news of their son's condition. After what seemed like an eternity a hospital official emerged.
"The administrator came out and said. #I want you to see him. I want you to know that he's alive. We didn't expect this when we brought him in,'" Diane said.
Ryan was stable enough to move to Plantation Hospital, which was 10 miles away with a better trauma center, and eventually to Hollywood Memorial, which had stronger neurosurgery facilities.
More good news followed. Ryan's lungs had begun to re-inflate on their own and his liver had sealed itself so well that surgery was no longer required.
"A doctor came out and told us that they'd never seen anything like it," Diane said.
Still with so much damage to his legs, pelvis and back, Ryan's long-term prognosis was uncertain. Doctors predicted he'd never walk properly.
"When we found out he was going to live, we said, #OK, we'll take him any way he comes,' " Frank said.
Ryan spent the next 35 days at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. While Diane stayed with Ryan, Frank took Jackie home to Long Island to stay with her grandparents. He spent Monday through Thursday on Long Island before flying south to rejoin his wife and son.
Ryan's recovery continued to amaze doctors. He was expected to have 11 different surgeries to repair the damaged bones, but they proved unnecessary.
"Since I was so young and my bones weren't fully developed, they were able to come back together," Ryan said, shaking his head and smiling at his good fortune. "Luckily enough, I didn't have to have surgery."
When Ryan was healthy enough to move, the cast that covered almost all of his body made commercial air travel impossible. So the Smiths flew home in a chartered jet.
It was quickly apparent that Ryan's injuries had done little to sap his considerable energy. As soon as the cast came off, he began moving actively around his house.
Almost every morning he's awaken with aches, seemingly in a different spot every day. Temperature changes worsened the discomfort.
"We used to say you'd know when the weather was changing based on how Ryan felt," Jackie remembered.
But ibuprofen, which he still takes daily, helped ease the pain and he eventually outgrew the resulting scoliosis that left his spine more curved than most youngsters his age.
The limp the doctors warned about never materialized and when he was 5, Ryan was cleared to play youth soccer.
"In his first game, he ran on the field and scored a goal," Frank said. "My wife and I started crying. He was a kid that wasn't supposed to walk properly and here he was running. He's a miracle."
High school lacrosse star
Ryan has rarely stopped running since. Frank installed a tennis court in the family's backyard when Ryan became a ranked junior player.
Fear of an injury led Diane to prevent her son from playing football. But she'd grown up on lacrosse-crazy Long Island. Her brother had played and given Ryan a miniature stick at an early age. She never considered keeping him away from that game.
Lacrosse quickly eclipsed his love of tennis and in high school Ryan was a standout. He holds Half Hallow Hills High School's single-game record with 13 points. He finished his career with 110 goals and 126 assists, a performance that impressed UMass coach Greg Cannella enough to offer Ryan a scholarship.
As Ryan grew older, he continued to impress doctors as well. The speed of his healing continued to baffle them. Contusions that were expected to sideline him for weeks barely took days to heal.
Smith returned to the field in less than a month after tearing a quad, an injury that normally requires up to four months of recovery.
"My recovery time is just so much different than a regular human being," he said. "I guess because it was damaged so much, it's used to recovering."
When he arrived at UMass as a freshman, Ryan was assigned to Coolidge, one of the five tower dormitories on campus. His room was on the 21st floor.
"When he first got in there, I was testing all the windows and making sure everything was safe," Diane said.
The family still has an odd relationship with heights. Ryan, who doesn't remember the fall, loves roller coasters and someday hopes to sky dive.
"When I'm in a hotel on the 40th floor, I can look down and just think it's a nice view," he said. "But if I'm walking through New York City and I look up at skyscrapers, I get really terrified. But only from down low, not from up high.
"Even today if I go out on a balcony, my mom says please get away from the railing."
Diane, who was a gymnast at Adelphi University, now won't go near the edge.
Jackie not only avoids heights herself, but steers her friends away from them.
"I'll go on a balcony, but I won't get very close to the railing. That stays with me," Jackie said. "Even my friends don't go near a railing since they've heard this story."
Ryan played sparingly in his first three years at UMass, but earned a starting spot this season as a senior. While he wasn't a star, his teammates respected his work ethic enough to vote him a captain.
On Monday the UMass athletic department named him one of two inspirational athletes of the year.
"It's one of the biggest accomplishments I've had in my entire life," Ryan said. "Doctors said I would never walk again and now playing a Division I sport, being a captain and starting, I'm very proud of that."
Lawsuit prompts changes
The Smiths' lawsuit against the Quality Inn produced two results. Former Florida state senator Pete Weinstein championed a law requiring new regulations and safeguards for all balconies and railings on oceanfront property. The "Ryan Smith Law" is part of the state building code.
The Smith family chose not to disclose how much money Ryan received as a result of the suit. But a portion of that money will help pay for the next chapter of his life.
Ryan and two boyhood friends have spent parts of the past three years creating a business plan to create a healthy take-out and food delivery business.
"In a college town when you come back from the bars, all you can get is pizza or wings or something," said Ryan, a hospitality and tourism management major. "There are some people that do want a healthy sandwich or a salad or something. That's what we're going to try to attack with."
The threesome has targeted Ann Arbor, Mich., where the other two partners are students, as the first location for their business which they eventually hope to franchise.
"We're hopefully going to launch in mid-July or August," Ryan said.
Diane likes the thought of her son as a businessman and still marvels at the good fortune that allowed him to even reach adulthood.
"I still relive that day. I think about the what if and what could have been. A day doesn't go by that I don't think about it," she said. "Sometimes if I'm not thinking about anything, I'll think about that and I'll shudder and then I'll say #Oh thank you God.'"
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