Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Former football player finds life beyond traumatic brain injury

Ryan Jansen during an interview with a Herald-Whig reporter in Jansen's office at John Wood Community College on Thursday, Mar. 29, 2018. Jansen serves at the coordinator of Disability Services. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 16, 2018 8:30 am

QUINCY -- Ryan Jansen was on track to go to West Point and eyeing a military career when a hard hit during a particularly hot football practice shattered those dreams.

Jansen has spent the years since he suffered a traumatic brain injury pushing against his physical limitations to build a life resembling the one he had imagined as a teenager. The circumstances of his life have shifted well beyond anything he could have expected, but the core is the same -- he has regained the use of his extremities, is employed full-time, owns his own home and even drives.

"I've never been depressed," Jansen said in his office at John Wood Community College, where he is coordinator of Disability Services. "I've always known I have a purpose, and that God would get me through it. I don't think a person could get through a life like this without a higher power."

Freak accident

August 15, 1995, was a hot summer day. Temperatures were creeping up near the 90s, and the Quincy Notre Dame football team had just begun practicing in full pads for two-a-days.

The final play of the morning practice took Jansen, a wide receiver, out on a slant route to catch a pass. A defender speared the 15-year-old in the chest as he came down with the ball, knocking the wind out of him and crumpling him down to the ground.

With a struggle and ignoring protests from his coaches, Jansen got up to run the final sprints of the morning with his teammates.

"My body just didn't feel right while I was running," he said. "Walking to the locker room, I collapsed in the parking lot on my way."

His heart stopped. When he arrived at Blessing Hospital, he was put into a coma for 24 hours. When he awoke, he was blind and unable to walk correctly.

"It was the heat, the hit and the run," he said. "A freak accident."

He was flown to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis and had a minor stroke in the helicopter on the way.

"I was 15 years old and fighting for my life in the hospital," he said.

At Barnes, seven neurologists gave him a rare diagnosis -- a complex paragraph in itself -- of "hypopoxic ischemic brain injury resulting in spastic quadriplegia, cortical-visual difficulties and a generalized dystonic movement disorder because of the delayed anoxic injury to the basal ganglia."

The sport he loved had damaged his occipital lobe, the visual processor of the brain, and irreparably altered the course of his life.

Rehab, which was done at St. Louis Children's Hospital, was intense -- daily eight-hour sessions -- and at one point, he lost all control of his muscles. He lost 70 pounds in a few months, and the 160-pound teenager that was flown into the hospital weighed less than 100 pounds when he went home.

'A God thing'

Jansen sees it as nothing short of miraculous that he recovered from such severe injuries. Hopeful greeting cards from complete strangers poured into his hospital room daily, and he fell back on prayer throughout the experience. The faith he had before the accident was strengthened as he faced a lifetime of trying to recover from his injuries.

He returned home just before Christmas in 1995 after missing an entire semester of high school. Focusing solely on his physical and speech therapies and working hard to catch up on his school work, Jansen was able to graduate on time with his classmates in 1998. He enrolled at Quincy University that fall and majored in business.

"I needed to figure out something with technology I could do either from home or behind a desk," he said. "I knew that would be the key to long-term employment."

A few years after graduating from QU, Jansen became the outreach director for the West Central Illinois Center for Independent Living (WICIL). The job gave him the opportunity to work with others who live with disabilities. The job also afforded him the chance to speak to those living with disabilities, those in the medical field and other organizations in the six counties the nonprofit serves.

"I've been in both worlds -- I've been not disabled, and I've been disasbled," he said. "I feel like I was kind of led by God, that he opened the job up for me."

Helping others

In 2009, after three years at WCICIL, Jansen went to graduate school at the University of Illinois to study public administration. He interned with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity in Springfield.

The Disability Services coordinator job at JWCC opened up in 2012. Jansen's business background helped him to make the office as efficient as possible -- he wrote a new procedure manual for the office when he took the position -- while his personal experiences help him to connect with the students the office serves on a deeper level.

John Wood had around 50 students with disabilities when Jansen took the job. With the expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act and through Jansen's constant outreach work, he has a roster of 160 students.

"I get the most joy in life from seeing people happy, seeing them overcome the disabilities in their lives, being a listening ear and seeing them recognize how much potential they have," he said.

Jansen still does rigorous physical therapy multiple times a week. Doctors assumed he would need to live in an assisted living home, but he has proved them wrong. He was on medications for many years but has been able to ween himself off all medicines. He serves as a board member on the Brain Trauma Awareness Organization.

"When you've been through what I've been through, there's no place to go but up," he said. "There's life beyond traumatic brain injury."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.

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