By Jerome Tharaud
For Ryan Chagnon and his family, the three years he has spent recovering from the car accident that put him in a coma for four days have brought their share of tears and laughter, realized goals and ones that still belong to the future.
Three years ago Chagnon was a strapping 112-pound varsity wrestler at Havre High School. All that changed in an instant on April 13, 2001. Friday the 13th. Good Friday. Ryan and his older sister, Jessica, were involved in a two-car accident as they pulled out of North 31st Street onto Montana Highway 232 and were struck by an oncoming car that was obscured by a blind spot in the road.
The impact spun Ryan's Chevrolet Blazer out of control. Jessica suffered major head lacerations and several fractures in the right forearm. Ryan was ejected from the vehicle, which then rolled on top of him. He was pinned face down underneath the 3,000-pound vehicle in soft dirt for eight to 10 minutes before it could be removed.
Ryan, who was not breathing and had no pulse, was rushed to Northern Montana Hospital, where his vital signs were started again. From there he was airlifted to Benefis East in Great Falls, where he lay in a coma for four days before he revived.
That was only the beginning of the recovery for Ryan, who suffered severe nerve damage and also brain injury resulting from lack of oxygen.
He spent four months in Great Falls undergoing intensive therapy.
He had to learn to sit upright and to walk, at first assisted and then alone.
Early on, when a newspaper article about Ryan's high school wrestling coach was placed in his lap in the hospital, Ginger Chagnon knew she saw her son's eyes moving. When they told the nurse about the incident a little later, the nurse was skeptical.
"This nurse was telling us, 'He doesn't comprehend what he's reading," Chagnon said.
Ryan reached over and pushed the nurse away, twice.
"The nurse made the comment, 'I guess he can,'" and took the hint to leave, Wayne Chagnon recalled.
Ryan learned to eat solid food again, beginning with a bag of chips on the Fourth of July. He learned to write and to talk, which is still his greatest challenge.
Now Ryan, a cheerful 20-year-old, can sit in his family's kitchen sipping a Dr. Pepper and eating a slice of pepperoni pizza while his parents go back over carefully kept pictures and records of his progress.
They still have the paper tablet on which Ryan slowly learned to write again, answering questions written by his family and caretakers at the hospital.
"This is how we communicated with him because he could not speak," Ginger said.
At first, Ryan's thoughts were hidden in an impenetrable tangle of lines. On June 25 he could write his name legibly. A few days later he could write the names of the family's three dogs and four of its five horses. He could write the answers to basic math problems. On July 19, when his mother asked him what was wrong, Ryan wrote, "Dinner at home." When asked again what was wrong, he wrote, "Home."
In the pages of the family photo album, his parents see Ryan on his first weekend visit home from the hospital a few days later, sitting in a wheelchair and petting one of the family's horses. They see his return to Havre in August in a white limousine, surrounded by friends and well-wishers. They see him months later, an HHS senior, dressed in a tuxedo and walking arm-in-arm with his friend Cherish Fehr at the Senior Ball - his first time walking without a walker.
Ryan's recovery progressed steadily. He described it this week as "Long, long, long," and "Slow, slow, slow." His father took long walks with him up and down the hills on their property in the evenings. He relearned to ride a bike and eventually was able to help his family work, from reshingling the roof to branding cows.
Local physical therapist Daimon Parrotte, owner of Physical Therapy Down Under, remembers when he began working with Ryan in August 2001.
"I can remember the first day he came in here, I had him stand up, and he would have fallen over if someone hadn't been there to grab him," Parrotte said.
"It does show that if somebody perseveres and doesn't give up they can really go a long way."
Parrotte continues to work on Ryan's balance and coordination, but their relationship is not just about work.
"It's easy to joke with him and he always laughs," Parrotte said. Parrotte is usually the one telling the jokes, but sometimes Ryan gets one in. "When he does put out something, it's usually pretty funny," he said.
In the fall after his crash, Ryan returned to HHS to complete his remaining few credits. He graduated with his class in spring of 2002.
In January of 2003 Ryan enrolled at Montana State University-Northern, taking math and science classes.
Then in July of 2003 he went back to work part time at Gary & Leo's IGA as a courtesy clerk like he did before the wreck, helping customers carry their groceries out of the store.
"When I decided in July that I wanted to go back to work at IGA, I know it was hard for my parents to let me do things on my own again," Ryan wrote in a paper for his English class last fall. "However, they knew that I needed to be on my own and try to get my life back. They have been very supportive of my decision. They have given me the space and time I need to do things on my own."
Wayne Chagnon tried to explain why Ryan went back. "He said he wanted people to know he was still ..." Wayne Chagnon said and trailed off.
"Here," Ryan said.
IGA store manager Tracy Job said one of Ryan's most prominent qualities is his attitude. "For example, he always goes to the largest orders up," Job said. "He doesn't shy away from the harder work. Anything you ask him to do, he jumps in and does.
"And I wouldn't mind having two or three Ryans helping us out," he added.
Seeing an angel
For about 19 minutes following the wreck, Ryan Chagnon was dead, his mother said. Against all odds, he got a second chance.
In December of 2001, Ginger Chagnon was doing a speech exercise with her son, prompting him to make up sentences about different objects around the house. She came to a small ceramic angel.
"I saw an angel at the hospital," Ryan said.
Ginger Chagnon pressed him. Ryan said a floating female figure, dressed in white, had told him "that I was going to be all right." She also told Ryan that in life she had been married to a Chagnon. Her name was Julia, Ryan said, but he called her Jewel.
Ryan's mother, who had made a hobby out of tracing the family's genealogy, decided to do some digging. The only family member her relatives knew of with a similar name was a Josephine, who had married Leon Chagnon - Wayne Chagnon's grandfather - in Canada and moved to the Havre area to homestead. But the family was quite certain: no Julia.
Ryan's mother dug further and found the death certificate of Mrs. Leon Chagnon. On the certificate, her first name was not Josephine. It was Julia.
Ginger Chagnon contacted some of Josephine's family members in Canada. They said they had always called her Julia, ever since the family immigrated from Poland when she was a little girl. And the name Julia in Polish, they said, sounds just like Jewel.
Then Ryan's mother made the strangest discovery of all. According to an old newspaper article, Josephine Chagnon was killed in a fatal car wreck in 1951 on her way to Missoula. She was 56.
From old pictures, Ryan has identified her short brown hair and plain features as the figure that appeared at his hospital bedside soon after his accident.
A guardian angel, the family surmises. And when they speak of Ryan's future possibilities, in light of his miraculous survival, they rule nothing out.
"I think a lot of people think that because he walks funny and talks funny, his soul is different, and it's not," his mother said. "My son fought to live. I'm not going to limit him."
"Are you going to get through this?" she asks her son.
"Yes," he says.
"How do you know?"
'Continues to gain'
Ryan's life is busy. Now in his third semester at Northern, he takes two classes on Mondays and Wednesdays; another class on Tuesdays as well as speech therapy and physical therapy; a computer lab, weights class and math class on Thursdays; speech therapy on Fridays; and work at IGA on the weekend.
In journal entries for his English class this fall, Ryan wrote about his plans, before the wreck and after.
"My future plans were to go to college in Huntington, West Virginia. I was going to go to Marshall University there. I was going to be a forensic scientist." He wrote that things have changed since the crash, and that having to do so much therapy is "not very neat."
Ryan's consciousness of his pre-accident and post-accident self emerged early on. Soon after the accident, while he was still bedridden in the hospital in Great Falls, his family and caretakers put him on a tilt board, sitting him up a little further every day.
On the day they finally sat him straight up, he found himself staring at a mirror on the wall across from his bed. For the first time since the wreck, Ryan saw himself.
"And his face just crumbled, and everybody just bawled. Because we knew that he knew that he was hurt really bad," his mother recalled.
But that knowledge perhaps serves as the engine for Ryan's drive to recover. His writing, rather than descending into self-pity or melancholy, expresses gratitude and expectation.
"My dad is kind of wonderful. He has taught me a lot of things like how to break a colt," begins one journal entry.
Ryan's goals are to perform again some of the physical acts he once did with ease. To run, and some day to drive in town. To live on his own.
And to wrestle. His parents say that sometimes after the rest of the family is in bed, Ryan watches videos of his high school wrestling meets, and pantomimes the moves his former self needed to make to get the pin.
Ryan wrote in an English paper that his brother Gray "likes to wrestle with me and most of the time gets the best of me because I am slower in my movements." Here, as in other things, an undefeated optimism lights his way: "But that is okay because hopefully I will get better and I might surprise him one day."
The most recent assessment by his doctor charts his progress toward these goals. "Continues to gain ... Still high level goals for this gentleman with severe traumatic brain injury who is extremely motivated and for whom I think we all need to envision a life style independent of the parental home. He still needs some basic skills before this is possible but it will come."
Ryan thinks so too.
"I can not drive yet. I can read the signs but I just do not feel the same," Ryan wrote in September. "But all that will get better with time. Time I have."