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Courage to Come Back Awards: Jim Ryan

Jim Ryan was a commercial pilot and air force veteran with a busy family when a freak accident in Hawaii changed his life forever. Lynn Colliar explains how Ryan’s accident has made him an advocate for people with physical challenges.
Jim Ryan was a commercial pilot and air force veteran with a busy family when a freak accident in Hawaii changed his life forever. Lynn Colliar explains how Ryan's accident has made him an advocate for people with physical challenges.

Celebrating 20 years of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – the Courage to Come Back Awards highlights people in five categories who have overcome adversity or illness and who inspire and give to others.

In this fourth instalment, we highlight the winner of the physical rehabilitation category: Jim Ryan.

For Jim Ryan, life changed in an instant while on vacation in Hawaii two years ago.

The father of four and pilot of 40 years was starting to think about retirement and travelling the world.

He and his wife were swimming in Maui when they dove under a wave.

His wife Isabelle surfaced. Jim did not.

“The wave came, we dove in, I got twisted around and the wave drove my head into the sand,” Ryan said.

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“I hit hard and I remember thinking, ‘I am going to have a headache tonight.’So now I’m underwater, I’m trying to work the problem, nothing’s moving and I could see the air moving out of my mouth. And I could feel the water coming in.”

“Gee, this is what it feels like drowning.”

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READ MORE: Courage to Come Back Awards 2018: Ingrid Bates

At that point, Isabelle grabbed him and pulled his head out of the water. Ryan remembers her screaming for help.

“And then I died.”

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Lifeguards dragged him onto the beach and started extreme CPR. They told Isabelle he was coming back to talk to him.

They didn’t expect what she said.

“You owe me 30 years in this marriage contract,” she told Global News. “He’ll get it, he’ll think it’s funny.”

This January, Ryan went back to Big Beach, to thank the lifeguards personally.

“I woke up in the hospital thinking, ‘This is bad but I’ll walk outta here,'” he said. “And I’m still trying to walk outta here.”

READ MORE: Courage to Come Back Awards 2018: Josh Dahling

Ryan spent four months on a ventilator, unable to speak or breathe on his own. Then five-and-a-half months at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre.

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He credits his career as a pilot — 10 years in the Air Force and 15 years with WestJet — with helping him get through it.

He  also credited the support of family and friends and technology.

Through his rehab, Ryan met Rick Hansen and has become an ambassador for the Rick Hansen Foundation, educating people on how technology can help quadriplegics.

“Life isn’t where you’re from, life is where you’re going,” said Ryan. “People have had difficulties, including me. But you can’t change the past, you have to learn from it, live with it, you can’t ever forget it but you have to keep going.”

Another thing that has changed is how Ryan looks at people in wheelchairs. He says before he would look away, not wanting to be seen as staring.

“Now I’m the guy in the wheelchair and it’s a little bit disappointing when people look away. So I say, ‘When you see me, say hi.’ I’m just a guy in a wheelchair, getting through life.”