Ryan Tapp: Life after a Traumatic Brain Injury
Host: Welcome to the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare Podcast. This podcast will feature patients, families, and medical professionals dealing with serious illnesses or injuries and is meant to inspire, bring hope, insight, and a message of belief that life after a traumatic illness is possible.
I am your host, Megan Palmer, an occupational therapist at Gaylord and the ThinkFirst program coordinator. The ThinkFirst Association is a nationwide organization devoted to preventing brain and spinal cord injury among our youth and spreading awareness of the consequences of risky behavior. Our first several episodes will feature the ThinkFirst program where we will talk with former patients, physicians, and family members who have been directly affected by traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.
So whether you're listening in as a former or current patient, you're a mom, a dad or a family member of someone with a brain or spinal cord injury or you're exploring career options in the health field. This special series will highlight those split-second decisions that can alter or change a life forever.
Host: Hartford Current January 2nd, 2008. Headline: “Crash wrong way on I-84.” "Five people were severely hurt when a 20-year-old Cheshire man driving the wrong way on I-84 early New Year's day slammed head-on into a car and then crashed into a second one. Police said investigators could not say how Ryan Tapp ended up driving eastbound in the westbound lanes because he was so badly injured they couldn't question him."
Today folks, we have Ryan Tapp here with us today to tell his story of how drunk driving and traumatic brain injury have impacted his life. Hi Ryan, welcome to the show.
Guest: Hi, thank you for having me.
Host: Thank you for coming today! We are so excited because you are a miracle first of all. You have been through a traumatic accident and have come out probably a better person than you were before the accident. Would you agree?
Guest: Without a doubt.
Host: Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about your story? What happened to you?
Guest: Well, on New Year's Eve of 2007 and going into 2008, I was doing what any 20-year-old does at that time. We were having a party, we were drinking, we were drinking heavily. I was at Central Connecticut State University celebrating with a bunch of friends and it was a bigger celebration just because I was a month away from deploying with my Marine Corps unit to Iraq. So we are going hardcore, I guess you could say in it was probably one of the best nights of drinking I've ever had, and for some reason around 3 a.m. I don't remember any of this. I don't know anything about how or why I even left, but I decided to get into my car and get on the highway and I from what I read from the police report, I got on the highway going the right way but around exit 32 on I-84 I ended up just doing a U-turn and going the wrong way for a couple of miles before I smashed into one car that sent me rolling on top of another.
Host: And you don't recall any of that?
Guest: I have no idea. I don't recall any of it. There's no recollection. And with my injury, I don't even remember two months before the accident.
Host: Now you were in a coma?
Guest: I was in a coma for three weeks, two weeks of my own, and then a week of medical [coma] to help me heal and then bring my brain back down. It was swelled up so much they had to drill a hole into it. And the doctors, the first things they told my parents were they don't know if I'm even going to make it the night.
Host: That call, I can't imagine your poor parents listening to that phone ring and having to respond to their child, you know, grasping onto life for the night.
Guest: Yes, it's been 13 years since the accident. And they still bring it up quite a bit. And it still gets them almost into tears every single time they talk about it because they literally almost lost me.
Host: I can only imagine that pain now after Hartford after coming out of the medical coma. Where did your rehab go from there? How are you back to where you are today?
Guest: Well after the month, I was at Hartford and then I went to Gaylord Hospital where I had to learn how to basically be born again. I was 20 at the time and I was an infant. I couldn't even hold my head up. I couldn't talk I couldn't do anything. I was just lying there unable to move and Gaylord taught me everything. From the first thing I started doing was giving a thumbs up. Two of my physical therapists and occupational therapists were helping me just hold my head up and if you could see the video of just how I looked it was just it was hard. I couldn't do anything and I was trying, and I couldn't even figure it out how to do it. They had to really do it for me. So I could relearn to make the connections in my brain and really relearn how to do it all.
Host: Now do you remember that part of your rehab or is that sort of from the videos and pictures you've seen?
Guest: I do not remember most of Gaylord. I only remember probably the last week or two there before I was discharged And most of it's hard to tell if what I remember are the videos that have been recorded of me or if it's actual memories.
Host: Right, and how long were you at Gaylord?
Guest: A little less than a month wow that is a fast recovery for the state and condition that you were in. I got to say I owe this all to my parents. They literally were there every day during therapy and at night they would really hammer it down and put me through it all again. Just to help expedite the healing and try to get me back to some condition.
Host: Now you went home independent or no?
Guest: No, no, I was I was sent home. They sent me home because my mother was a nurse and I think they just trusted her and her instincts and her job title of being the commander in the navy as a nurse in the navy that she would be able to take care of me.
Host: Were you walking when you were able to go home?
Guest: Yes, I left the hospital actually running.
Guest: I know. I know. It's kind of, I still remember, I do remember some of those videos of just me running through the hallways doing some stuff. Just some exercises with, Pete, my physical therapist.
Host: Oh yes. He is quite memorable too. Now when you got home did your therapy stop?
Guest: I started doing outpatient therapy where I actually did that for about eight more months.
Host: And then by that time do you feel like your therapy was done or you were still living with some impairments from the traumatic brain injury?
Guest: I'm still living with some impairments from the traumatic brain injury. It's a never-ending battle. It's kind of like a puzzle piece with a missing piece. It just never goes back to the way it was.
Host: So, you're always a little different.
Guest: Always a little different. What it used to be, it's hard to tell because I've lost a lot, but I've gained so much more just because I no longer drink, I no longer do anything reckless like that. I have a family and now knowing now having a son, I can't imagine putting my parents through what I put them through.
Host: Well, you see through a different set of eyes now, right? Your perspective and insight on parenthood and growing up and having someone else to take care of besides yourself is a whole different world. What is as far as what you're living with today, what are the impairments that you still struggle with
Guest: The most right now is just memory is the big thing. It's a, when I'm tired you could see it, it takes me just a lot longer to pull it up. It's a kind of like, my brain is in a fog a lot, like it's always on the tip of my tongue, but it just takes me a lot longer to pull it to where I needed to speak it out.
Host: Got it. Any physical impairments?
Guest: No, physically, I'm actually in good shape, I've worked very hard. My dad threw me right into the gym when I got home from the hospital and I've been going since then and I feel like if I stop, it may go back. But other than that I just have some nerve damage in my shoulder. That makes one arm go a little bit higher. But physically I'm pretty good.
Host: And no broken bones from the accident way back?
Guest: That's a godsend. There are no broken bones. Uh, the only cut I had was from my seat belt, which, thank God, I remembered to put that one on.
Guest: Yeah, it's hard too. I have a feeling most of the no broken bones were because I was that drunk that I didn't tense up at all when I got into the accident.
Host: Gotcha. And your head injury was from hitting the windshield or the steering wheel? Do you know?
Guest: From what I was told from what the doctor said, they said my brain was kind of like a lottery ball. So like before a lottery ball is picked they're just bouncing around and that's exactly what my brain was doing in my skull. It was just bouncing around with every roll, every stop, every sudden jerk. My brain was just slamming against my skull
Host: So the seatbelt kept you in the seat safe in the driver's seat. But it was the motion of the car and the speed that you were going that really made that bruising and bleeding and everything around your brain.
Guest: Yes. And from what I was told, I was doing about 80 to 90 mph. When I suddenly stopped,
Host: That's fast to just come to a halt like that.
Guest: Yes, it's a, there's no reason I should be here right now.
Host: Right. That's why I said, you are definitely a miracle to be living breathing. Like you said, have a family and just be on the other side of this kind of a better person. And after all this rehab, eight months later, you're at home. What are, what happened? What were the consequences of your drunk driving accident hitting other people?
Guest: Yeah, I took a little bit of time and a cop finally came to my door and they arrested me. They sent me, my court cases were about to start and for a couple more months I had to go to court every once in a while and wait for the verdict and wait for everything to be finished.
Host: So...months after a traumatic brain injury where you were literally left lifeless. You are now in a courtroom, being questioned by a judge, and, what is going on in your head at that point? What are you thinking?
Guest: I'm thinking I need to pay for what I did. I mean, I knew what I did was bad. I knew it was completely all my fault. There was no one else to blame. This was even how drunk I was. It was still my choice and I knew I had to pay for it. My lawyer told me that I'd probably just get probation with community service hours and maybe a little fine, but I was not ready for what actually happened. On the day of the, what's it called, the hearing, to finish it up. The judge's words were, I'm going to use you to make an example, And she just did just that she sentenced me to five years suspended after 18 months in prison, with five years probation, 500 hours of community service, and paying back whatever restitution my insurance didn't cover for the victims.
Host: That's a hard pill to swallow.
Guest: So I had to look back at my mother and let her know that it's going to be okay that I'll be fine. God's got this. And I went right into the holding cell and they sent me right to Hartford Correctional Facility.
Host: So you walked into that hearing that day thinking that you were going to have probation and community service and you left with a sentence of five years in prison suspended after 18 months. There was no going home for you at that point.
Guest: Nope! I knew I went right to that cell and I just started praying. Really praying for just the sanity of my parents or my brothers.
Host: Wow! Now you went to Hartford, which seems like a pretty rough prison to be in, especially after a traumatic brain injury. How did you ensure your safety there?
Guest: Now this is a God moment because my father when we lived in Florida a long time ago used to work with somebody who is now on the correctional committee in Connecticut and he got in contact with her and she got in contact with the Hartford warden and my parents were in constant communication with the warden from Hartford. And with the state I was in from my accident, it was not safe for me to be anywhere near any of those people, any of the people there, anyone at all. So the warden actually promised and did whatever they could. They put me in a nice 8 by 4 room by myself where I got the food, they gave me books and I was just there until they were ready to transfer me to the my the prison. I was going to say that for the rest of my service.
Host: And why was it so important for you to be alone in an isolated room at that time in your recovery?
Guest: Because one hit on my head, could just end it, it could have just killed me there. And the chance of that was pretty high.
Host: That is a scary place to be in. Now you stayed for how long at Hartford prison?
Guest: I was at Hartford for about a week.
Host: And then you were transferred to…?
Guest: The Willard-Cylbuski facility in Enfield, Connecticut, which is from what I was told kind of a last stop. Like people who go there going home after that. So most people, they're well behaved, they don't want to mess up and it's a little safer. Their own little hospital in the area if they needed it.
Host: Okay and how long were you there?
Guest: I was there for nine months and one day.
Host: What did you do with yourself for nine months and one day in prison?
Guest: Read. I read I worked out my brain. It was actually a blessing. I guess you could say because I, I took advantage of what I wouldn't have done if I was actually free. I've read, studied, and I memorized close to 50 Bible scriptures. I really worked out my brain and help me make those connections and get into the where I am today and now I'm now able to actually, I'm an apprentice at the local 777, where I'm almost done with becoming a journeyman and becoming a plumber and I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't work out my brain and really, really put the brain through all the memory, all the struggle of reading and everything to get back to where I am today.
Host: That is a lot of self-driven motivation in a time where you probably needed the most help from other people.
Guest: Yes. And I had that help. One of my pastors came to visit me every Friday really helped me teach the Bible. My parents were constantly visiting. I had friends visiting. There was always help. People are writing like crazy, sending the articles like I did fantasy football in prison.
Host: Let's not glorify it, right?
Guest: Yes, I made the best of my circumstances.
Host: Very good. And that speaks volumes about you and your personality and what you've become today too. Now you get out of prison, what's the next step? What do you do when you're home?
Guest: It was a matter of, I don't know what I can do. So, I got a job just doing landscaping and helping with some yard work. Somebody I used to know who owns a business and I help them out for a little bit and then I tried to go back to school. I tried to go back to school seven months after my accident and I went back to Central Connecticut State University trying to do criminal justice and I completely failed to the point where we just kind of got rid of the semester, like it never even happened, it was just that bad. My brain wasn't even close to being able to handle everything I could.
Guest: I just couldn't study, I couldn't have the concentration to focus during class. It was like a person with ADD kind of but to a little bit more of an extreme.
Host: And since then you've really worked with you know, doing other things besides school to get a job that's consistent and you are also trying to make a lot of money to do what?
Guest: Pay off my restitution.
Host: Yeah. How much money was that? You had to pay back?
Guest: A little more than $11 grand, I believe. I remember. So every paycheck I got was just being sent away.
Host: How many years did it take you to put that behind you?
Guest: I finished it six months before my five years probation was over. So everything I didn't save money. I was 25 still living with my parents and I didn't have a cent to my name because everything I saved I sent away.
Host: Gotcha. Have you tried to go back to school since?
Guest: I have, I got my associates. I finished that up. I just took whatever credits I had and just got my associate's degree. Now I'm in free schooling with the union where they're just a really big blessing.
Host: And in addition to that you've also given back and kind of made the most out of your situation by being one of our VIPs - our voices of injury prevention for the ThinkFirst program through Gaylord Hospital.
Guest: Yes. I believe I was one of the first.
Host: So how many years have you been a speaker for thing first?
Guest: It's been probably 8 to 9 years.
Host: Wow. And how has that changed you? What has that done for you?
Guest: It's nice to see the faces of all the kids and actually seeing because I look like nothing ever happened to me. So I go into talk and they're like, oh, we're going to listen to somebody talk about drinking and driving, who hasn't done it been through anything. And then I show them my videos and my pictures, the picture of my car, which was literally just a smashed-up Jeep Liberty. You wouldn't even be able to tell it was a Jeep Liberty. And the picture, the videos of me learning to hold my head up again and walk and they're just like, so maybe this guy actually knows something. Maybe he's been through it.
Guest: I've had a lot of comments about people saying they would, it's changed their life that maybe they will not even think about picking up the first drink, which is something I wish I did. I wish I didn't, I didn't pick up that first drink when I was 14 or 15 years old. I really got into that bad habit of just drinking and partying all through high school and college and Marine Corps.
Host: So you think your story has influenced high schoolers and making better decisions throughout their, um, their time there, right?
Guest: Yes. And that's why I still do it.
Host: So what's your take-home message for those kids?
Guest: Don't even pick it up. It's not worth it. Yeah. I even say, it's better to be home alone or just home with your parents or brothers than to be out drinking with your friends. You’ve got to pick the right people to actually be friends with, who actually care about you and your future because one mistake, it doesn't just affect you, it stops everyone's life. My mother retired my to take care of me. My father had to really work hard. So my medical bills were crazy, absolutely crazy. And now knowing from just having a baby and seeing how much that costs, what they paid for me was astronomical.
Host: And how about your brothers?
Guest: They had to go through just two of them in school at the time and with college and not anywhere near me there, one in Florida and one in North Carolina and they had to go through just living and hoping that I'd be better or actually make it through it. Well, I mean, I wish I could say that they didn't stop drinking. But to each, their own and they've made their own decisions.
Guest: But they've been great all this time.
Host: So this, this is a kind of a monumental experience for you. You've been through a horrible tragedy, you went to jail because of it. So you paid for the consequences of drinking and driving and now you are, you have a full-time job. You are a father, you are a husband and you're still helping me through ThinkFirst go out to those schools and promote your message to these children. You know, how has that made you look at life now from now into the future?
Guest: It makes me worried because now I have a son and knowing how I grew up, I know what to look for and or at least what to talk to him about. Because it's a scary world out there now and it doesn't seem like things are getting any better.
Guest: So it's a lot of trust in God and just go in the right direction and not the wrong way.
Host: So I'm sure we have listeners from all different backgrounds right now. We may have people going through traumatic brain injuries. We may have family members listening. We may have you know other healthcare workers working with people with brain injury. To that 20-year-old learning to take their first step again after a traumatic brain injury or to that person struggling with their memory or the people in prison maybe even looking for some hope. What is your message to them?
Guest: Don't give up. Just do the next right thing. Just keep moving, keep putting your foot forward. Keep…try to be better because it's kind of like a brain injury. It only gets as better with how much work you put into it. So if you don't do anything, you will stay the victim, you will stay hurt. You would stay injured. Really put everything forward to get better. And because it's not just your life that matters, it's everyone around who cares about you or who has given their time for you. They all love you and you just got to get better.
Host: I love that. That is perfect now to wrap this up, tell me what's harder boot camp or rehab after brain injury?
Guest: You see, I went to boot camp wanting that. I loved it. I loved the Marine Corps. It was difficult but I knew it was going to be difficult. Rehab is something I would never wish upon anyone. You know, it was hard, but I knew I had to do it just because I knew I had to get better and I and at that point, I wanted to get back into the Marine Corps. They took me back for a couple of months but they finally medically discharged me after they realized that my brain injury was just too severe and me being infantry... I didn't want to have one explosion. one loud noise that could just send me right back. Yeah, not worth the risk. And they thought so too.
Host: So you have to give up your dream of being in the Marine Corps.
Guest: So my accident, my decision to drink and drive made me lose my dream of serving in the Marine Corps.
Host: Gotcha. Now you, I know it's not something that you can take back. But if you were back in your 15-16-year-old self. Are you happy with where you've ended up today?
Guest: I'm happy where I am now because it's a great life. Things definitely would have been a lot different if I didn't get into the accident and it's hard to know actually where I would be because I was gun-ho. So I feel like something probably would have happened in Iraq or Afghanistan and who knows where I would have been. But either way, there's nothing I can do to change it. So yeah, I live in the moment, thankful for everything and I mean everything. Gosh, even prison I'm thankful for how much it really blessed me with working out my brain.
Host: Well, you have shared quite a story, Ryan. Um, I want to wholeheartedly thank you for coming on our podcast today and I can't wait until our next presentation. Thank you.
Guest: Thank you.
Host: Thank you all for listening and we hope you've been enlightened and encouraged by Ryan's story. In our next episode. I will be talking with Dr. Alyse Sicklick, who is the medical director of inpatient rehabilitation at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, Connecticut. We will discuss her almost 30-year career that has been focused on traumatic brain injury and stroke rehabilitation. We will also delve into how her career path has impacted her personal and family life. See you then!
Thank you for tuning into the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare podcast. We hope that you will join us again to hear more stories that bring hope, insight, and a message of belief that life after a traumatic injury or illness is possible.