Ryan McConnell, middle, is overjoyed to be back home with his parents Wendy and Tim.

Photo by John F. Russell

Ryan McConnell, middle, is overjoyed to be back home with his parents Wendy and Tim.

Ryan McConnell happy to be back home in Steamboat Springs after devastating fall in Arches

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— Ryan McConnell doesn’t remember March 12.

He can remember mountain biking with friends near Moab the day before, but the day of is a complete blank. That was the day the 23-year-old college student fell 100 feet from a desert path in Arches National Park to a dried creek bed below.

If you go

What: Benefit for Ryan McConnell

When: 3 to 7 p.m. May 25

Where: Howelsen Hill Lodge, Olympian Hall

Ryan fell while hiking in Arches National Park on March 12 and suffered a serious brain injury, broken back, lacerated liver, lacerated spleen and bruised lung. He spent nearly three months in St. Mary’s Hospital & Medical Center in Grand Junction and a the Craig Hospital in Denver recovering from the injuries and is now back home recovering from the injuries. This benefit is to help cover his medical expenses.

Ryan landed on his back, breaking his C-2 vertebrae and suffering a serious brain injury. He also lacerated his spleen and liver and bruised his left lung. Friends and rescuers reached him within minutes. They stabilized his neck and gave him immediate care.

Within the hour, he was flown by helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Grand Junction, a level-2 trauma center, where he spent the next two weeks heavily sedated and more than a bit confused.

“The first thing that came back to me is leaving Grand Junction and flying to Denver. That’s when it really started kicking back in,” Ryan said from his family’s home in Steamboat Springs on Thursday morning.

But the memories of that day still are fresh in Ryan’s parent’s minds.

The family was headed out the door for an event for Ryan’s younger brother, Will, who was competing in U-16 ski championships that week. But their plans changed dramatically when the phone rang. A social worker from the hospital was on the other end of the telephone with bad news.

“That was a long 190 miles,” Ryan’s dad, Tim, said about driving to Grand Junction. “It was a pretty quiet drive … lots of things go through your mind.”

Even today, as Tim recalls the events of that day, he has a hard time fighting back tears.

Luckily, for the McConnells, they are tears of happiness.

“Him,” Tim says when asked what he is thankful for. “Just the fact that he is still going to be the Ryan we know and love.”

Tim also is thankful for his family, the community he lives in and the community of Bozeman, Montana, where Ryan is attending school at Montana State University. Tim also is grateful to the two boys who were with Ryan the day of the accident and all the medical personnel who took care of him since the fall.

Since that day, Ryan has been working to get back to where he was. He is learning to sleep in a halo, working through therapy sessions and, at times, fighting to find the right words to complete his sentences.

But considering the accident, the family feels very fortunate.

“It took a while for him to grasp the whole situation. He didn’t really know how serious it was and how lucky he was with the C-2 break. Most people don’t make it this well,” Ryan’s mom, Wendy McConnell, said. “Every day it got better, and it was amazing. Every single day he would remember more, and when people were coming to see him, they would walk through the door, especially his older friends he’s known his whole life, and he would know them.”

It’s been a long journey. After spending a couple of weeks in Grand Junction, Ryan was flown to Craig Hospital in Denver. Physically, he felt pretty good, and at first he was a little confused about why he was at Craig Hospital.

But in time, it became clear.

“My short-term memory was pretty tough when I arrived at Craig,” Ryan said. “It was really hard for me to say specific things. I knew exactly what I was trying to say, but it was hard for me to come up with the words. That was the biggest thing that I noticed.”

Today, Ryan is back at home with his family in Steamboat Springs and doing well.

He still goes to therapy sessions, and the halo on his head is a constant reminder of what happened on that day, even if he can’t recall the events leading up to the fall, or the fall itself. He heads to Denver once every two weeks to visit with the doctors who have worked with him during the past few months.

Ryan and his family are counting the days and remain hopeful that the halo will be removed on June 4, exactly 12 weeks after the accident.

“They do a CAT scan that morning to make sure that it’s healed and then we will see the neurosurgeon that afternoon and get the big yea or nay,” Wendy said.

After that, Ryan hopes to continue to improve and already is looking forward to getting back to class in Bozeman to complete what he started. He hopes to graduate in fall 2015.

“I miss school back at college,” Ryan said. “It might be the first time I thought that I really miss being back at school.”

The family has insurance, but that hasn’t stopped the medical bills from piling up. Ryan’s teammates on the University of Montana Ski Team held a fundraiser this spring to help with medical expenses, and there is a fundraiser planned in Steamboat Springs from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Olympian Hall.

Tim said that while the accident has resulted in large medical bills, the family is strong, and he realizes that the financial situation is nothing compared to the possibility of losing someone you love.

“You can’t even put a worry on your mind about finances when it comes to your son,” Tim said. “We will sort that out as Ryan heals the next five, six or eight months. We will work with the facilities that cared for Ryan and do whatever it takes to keep them happy and keeps us able to keep rolling — which we will. We are very strong.”

Wendy said their family has been overwhelmed by the support of family, friends and members of their church.

“We will get by, and everyone has been great with these fundraisers,” Wendy said. “We are thankful for all the wonderful medical care that we’ve gotten everywhere, and the community here is just incredible.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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