Featuring photography by Ross Spirou and D-Eye Photography
and photos from Ryan's performances and surgery
Willpower to me is to challenge oneself and overcome any obstacle that will stand in the way of achieving one's goals.
On April 3rd 2008, I went to work at the Le Rêve theatre as normal. I prepared for shows as I usually would: warm up, pre-set my costumes, get into makeup etc... Our show line-up can change any time due to injuries or illnesses right up until the start of a show and even during a show. One of my cast members is ill and the line-up changes with only minutes before we are meant to be on stage. I have been added to the finale act of the show on top of an already overly stacked track that evening. I have just enough time to have a quick few minutes of rehearsal with my two porters for our finale number, and the opening music of the show starts the evening.
For those of you not familiar with Le Rêve, it is a water show. Most of the cast are considered generalists, so we are trained to perform almost all the aspects of the show. In the finale act, flyers (me) get tossed by two porters from a wedding cake-like structure about 15 feet above the stage into the pool where the depth of water is approximately 5 feet deep. I'm excited to perform that night, more so than most. I have a group of friends from other shows coming to watch, and I'm pumped! The finale act comes around, and I jump onto my porters to set up my second trick of the act.
Within a flash, as they are launching me into the air, my left foot slips, and everything just crumbles from there. One of my porters says "oh sh*t,” and in midair, I only hope to have enough rotation that I don't land head first upside down. I end up landing back on the dry stage, missing the water, and taking all the force to my face and chest. I slide unconscious into the water.
I was told that two artists jumped in to help me, and our amazing rescue divers were by my side within seconds. I won't go into detail, but a face-plant from over 20 feet isn't pretty. I wake up several minutes later on a spinal board with several athletic trainers and rescue personnel around me. I am rushed to the ER, still wet from the show. They cut my costume off and conduct several tests and scans. The early morning approaches, and I am stable and taken to a regular hospital bed. I learned that I had shattered my nose, fractured my cheek along with a few ribs and have multiple contusions to my lungs. I feel like I've been hit by a truck. I can barely move, and I am bruised all over. A couple of days go by, and I am sent home with referrals to see an ENT about my nose fractures. My couch has turned into a sea of pillows to try and keep me propped up and comfortable enough to sleep. Around Day 2 or 3 at home, I wake up in pain and swallow a blood clot. Suddenly, I have unstoppable bleeding coming from my nose. I am rushed to the ER once again, and the ER doctor refers me to an ENT the following day. The seven fractures to my nose are in need of a graft and a full reconstruction of my septum.
Post-accident recovery: Since most of the trauma had occurred to the upper part of my body, I can’t tell you how sore and bruised I felt from the fall. I feared having to cough or sneeze the most as the onset of either would cause tremendous pain. My lungs had been severely bruised, so daily breathing exercises were the start of my treatment. My athletic trainers then worked on manually releasing my diaphragm, and we slowly introduced a strength and conditioning program. This program included various forms of cardio, starting with walking, leading up to a run, swimming etc... Strength training included weights and calisthenics to mimic elements I would be doing in the show. During the recovery, I just kept telling myself that I wanted to get back on stage doing what I loved doing. I've always been intrinsically motivated, and my biggest competitor was myself. Having been an elite athlete, I tuned into the goal and not the pain, and I kept pushing myself each day. The hardest part was not being on stage, missing the sound of applause from the audience, and not being with the people that I spent the last several years calling my family. My treatments were often during the earlier part of the day, so I didn't get to see my cast members all that often.
Four months post reconstructive surgery, lots of rehabilitation with my trainers at work and I am back to shows again... well at least for two more years!
On January 2010, I started having issues with my lower back again. We opt to do a little more investigating. The orthopedic surgeon notices an issue with my lumbar spine; however, he is more concerned with my thoracic spine. My spinal cord is being impinged at the T-11/T-12 level and on the verge of being severed. This explains the symptoms like bladder function abnormalities that I was having off and on. I'm now faced with surgery again! From my fall two years prior and taking the blunt force to my chest and upper body, the Dr is certain that my disk was shifted which caused the impingement to my spinal cord.
After several consults with multiple surgeons, I am faced to weigh my options. I am not allowed to return to shows. I’ve been performing 10 shows a week with this impingement for the past 2 years, and my neurosurgeon says that I basically have a ticking time bomb in my back; one slip or fall could result in an emergency surgery to repair a severed spinal cord. Thoracic spinal surgery is quite tricky. All of our nerves come to a cone-like shape at the level my disc was bulging, so the risk involved is very high. They talk about a thoracotomy (think open heart surgery: opening up the chest to perform the surgery from the front), or operating laterally and removing two ribs to perform surgery. My mind is racing: How will I make it through this? Will I still be able to return to work post-surgery? Is this the end of my career?
When your body is your livelihood, it is very scary when an injury like this happens. I would often work through a taped ankle or wrist or slap some ice on a bad shoulder to stay on stage and perform. This massive accident really shook me. After the fall and leading up to my spinal fusion, I wondered if I would have the strength to come back and be able to perform. There were many dark days, the thought of not being able to use your body to continue to live your passion is terrifying. What if the surgery didn't go as planned, or if I had complications that would leave me unable to perform like I used to? I told myself that the risk of not having surgery was greater than having it, and I would just have to deal with whatever outcome I was left with post-surgery.
For 8 months, I fought with workers compensation to try and get a surgery approved. The only thing I can do daily is report to the theatre for a supervised workout to get as strong as possible should my surgery be approved. At one point, a work colleague said, “maybe it’s time to just retire!”. My mind goes into racing mode again. One of my referrals was to an amazing surgeon in Los Angeles who performs a less invasive but complicated endoscopic spinal surgery. The battle continues with workers compensation; however, I am determined to not give up, and my surgery is approved. On August 4th 2010, I underwent a thoracic spinal fusion by Dr. Patrick Johnson and his incredible team at Cedar Sinai.
Leading up to the surgery I remember telling my mom: "If I'm not able to walk again or if my life might change drastically, I will continue to be strong and find a new passion".
Surgery day arrives, and I am happy to wake up to find out that the surgery was a success. I'm up on my feet the next day, slowly, but nonetheless up and determined. I tell the nurses at the nurses' station that they better get used to seeing me up and about! During my recovery, I have a few hiccups including a pulmonary embolism scare (which felt like a heart attack) and retraining my bladder to function again.
After several days in recovery at the hospital, I was transferred to a hotel in LA where friends came to visit and help me before I was able to get cleared to travel back to Las Vegas. The next 4 ½ months is full of ups and downs: small successes like learning how to move again, getting off pain medication, extensive rehabilitation with my health service department at the show.
After being released from the hospital, I had strict orders of no bending, lifting, or twisting for 8 weeks.
I had a team of athletic trainers who worked with me on-site at the theatre to start working on getting back to being show-ready. Therapy included daily visits to our health service department for manual therapy and a physical conditioning program that would prep me to pass our physical testing to be allowed back on stage. We are tested every 6 months to keep us in top form for the shows, and since there was a lapse in my contract, I would have to pass with flying colors to be considered for another contract and return to full duties in the show. The conditioning was gradual, starting with regaining core stability. I worked with our Pilates instructor to help tune into my core muscles and build a foundation for the strength bearing exercise. I spent a lot of time in the pool doing exercises to alleviate any impact directly to my spine.
With lots of determination, the motivation from my cast and the support of my friends and family, I am able to return to my full show track at Le Rêve. I am back to my regular routine of jumping, diving and entertaining the masses!
Now flash forward five years later: I'm still standing, jumping and diving. I'm the strongest I've ever been in more ways than one. Why? Because I learned a valuable lesson. The lesson I learned was: we have to be ready for anything in life. That your life can change in an instant. That we must live each day to its fullest. That obstacles will present themselves, and it's more about how we overcome them that counts. I could have easily decided just to give up and explore a new route, but my passion and tenacity to fight helped me gain inner strength and "get back in the game". I was lucky. I had several angels watching over me during the accident and both surgeries. Giving up wasn't an option for me; it's never been an option. I was made aware of just how short lived a career as a performer can be. Each show for the last 5 years, whether I was having a good or bad day, I always valued life on stage.
You might think the life of a Vegas performer is all glitz and glam. It's not bad by any means; we get paid to do what we love, and it often doesn't feel like a job. What people don't realize is how short-lived our career is; I certainly didn't. They don't see the ugly side of the job: fighting for contracts, pushing through each show with an ache here and an ache there. ”The show must go on” mentality of the corporate setting or the fear of losing your next contract. We dance and flip around on stage, but we often struggle to "play the game" as we try to find a balance that will keep our passion alive. It is often truly the passion to perform that keeps us going. Plagued by injuries, overuse of our bodies and sometimes not feeling valued for the risks we take with each performance, we are challenged to make decisions on what is important to us.
Present time: As I approach my 40th, and 12 year anniversary of my accident, my health and well-being are important to me now. As a certified Yoga teacher and breathwork coach, I lean more towards a holistic approach to movement and maintaining a balance of what was once a broken body.
I’ve learned that we all have setbacks, but can still be triumphant. Le Rêve was truly a dream; however, I have had many more dreams come true. Since leaving the stage. I have had the pleasure in collaborating on projects for world-renowned artists such as Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and P!nk.
In the end, finding the fuel to keep that fire alive is WILLPOWER in itself!