Bitter to sweet

Despite an accident which ended his career as civil engineer and dream of becoming a helicopter pilot, Ryan Madden tells MARISKA MORRIS that his life has changed for the better.

Ryan rolls up to the step leading to the patio at Primi Piatti in Somerset West. Without a moment’s hesitation, he swivels his chair back and hops down the large step to join his beautiful fiancée, Sune van Nieuwenhuyzen. Sune wasn’t kidding when she said Ryan was a very mobile person despite his impairment.

He joins the table, puts his leg on his knee, leans forward and explains that he can do most things without assistance. The only real challenge is going up a staircase, but even this challenge is no match for the power couple.

“I just pivot in my chair and she pulls me up,” Ryan says. He demonstrates how easily he can manoeuvre his chair, tipping it backwards, holding the position for a few moments and then dropping back down. Sune jokingly comments that she needs to keep training so that she can pull him up a staircase.

Sune works as a personal trainer and spends most days at the gym. Ryan also practically lives in the gym. He trains for an hour and 40 minutes six days a week. Ryan has always had a love for sport, especially swimming. After his spinal cord injury, he decided to continue his participation in sport by training for triathlons. Since there are very few triathlon races for people with disabilities in South Africa, he raced against people without a mobility impairment.

“I’ve always participated against able-bodied people and it’s very different. The transitions are more difficult. When you get out of the dam somebody needs to assist you into your chair and push you to your bike, because of all the grass. I would cycle the same route, but the other contestants often run off-road. So, I am given another route,” Ryan says.

It was during a series of training sessions that Ryan and Sune met in the pool of a local gym.

“She was racing to keep up with me,” he says laughingly.

Now, however, the couple have taken up cycling. They are planning to participate in the Cape Town Cycle Tour in 2018. But before attempting that feat, they are tying the knot in May. They are planning a small wedding. There will, however, be no dancing. While Ryan can do most of things, he no longer feels comfortable dancing.

“Ryan used to love dancing and he misses it so much,” Sune says. Ryan adds that he never goes onto a dance floor these days, because it looks “pathetic”. Still, he remains positive and says that the only difference between him and a person without a mobility impairment is that he has wheels.

Eight years ago, Ryan was working in Ghana as a civil engineer. One Sunday, a motorist skipped a traffic light and collided with Ryan’s motorcycle five minutes from his apartment. He was travelling 10 km/h.

“When driving that slowly, it is difficult to avoid a collision. I rolled over the roof and felt the aerial and I thought: ‘What has she done? My bike is going to be buggered!’”

Ryan hit the road, hips and legs first, which caused the damage to his spinal cord.

“Of course, you lie there in denial, thinking to yourself that the feeling will come back soon.”

However, the feeling never came back. A private ambulance was arranged, which took Ryan to the military hospital – the best hospital in the country.

“The first time I realised it was serious, I was lying in the trauma centre and a nurse came and put a catheter in me. I couldn’t feel the catheter.”

The surgeon at the military hospital at first kept Ryan in Ghana because of the swelling in his legs. Finally, his company flew in two American surgeons, who operated on him. After a couple of weeks, he was flown to Cape Town. Ryan spent six months in rehabilitation and three month living with his parents, before he moved out on his own.

“Things happen for weird reasons. My wife and I were having problems. Then I had my accident and I decided I’d get divorced. I was still lying in the hospital and I said to my mother that I’ll never find another girl, because I am in a wheelchair. My mom said: ‘Ryan, you are going to learn that women aren’t fickle.’ And they are not,” Ryan says. Five years later, he met Sune.

The accident meant that Ryan needed to give up a few of his dreams, including becoming a pilot. Yet he believes his life turned out for the better.

“Many people say ag shame. I appreciate that, but I could have been so much worse off. I don’t have my legs. There are people who steer their wheelchair with their chins. My life has changed drastically, but for the better.”

“I don’t like to regard myself as disabled,” Ryan notes. “I just kind of made my mind up when I came out of hospital that I was going to do the things I wanted to do.” The couple often go on holiday with little thought about the accessibility of the destination.

“Often when you go to a new place and tell the owner, ‘My other half is in a wheelchair,’ they say, ‘Oh no, it is not accessible.’ But they don’t understand. Not all wheelchair users are the same,” Sune says.

“Some hotels have dedicated rooms for disabled people and I refuse to stay there. They have the worst view and they are just awful,” Ryan adds.

Even Ryan and Sune’s friends often forget he is a wheelchair user. Ryan always hoped that people would look beyond his chair, which seems to be the case.

“Ryan’s personality is bigger than life itself. You don’t see his wheelchair. You feel inspired and admire him for the person he is and his positive outlook on life. He has a way of leaving footprints in every heart he meets, brightening and touching lives all around him,” Sune says about her soon-to-be husband.

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