After 18 months of struggles, Ohio patrolman, wife look ahead

Diana Keough
Plain Dealer Reporter
Plain Dealer
Copyright 2006 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

Patrolman Ryan Nagy returned to the Middleburg Heights police force amid much fanfare last Tuesday.

Eighteen months after doctors amputated his mangled right leg, the city held a news conference to honor his return. Mayor Gary Starr and Police Chief John Maddox made remarks. So did Ryan. He blushed with embarrassment from all the attention.

The questions from the press, the staging for local TV news, all the back-slapping and smiles. It drove Ryan's wife, Barb, crazy. Their personal tragedy becomes film at 11. She was so proud of him. They had worked so hard to get here. But Barb doesn't like pretending everything's great now and that Ryan's recovery has been easy for him. Or for her.

Ryan, 32, almost didn't make it back to work. This past summer, he gave up trying. And his marriage was on the rocks.

"All those stories about amputees make it seem like it's so easy to recover," Ryan said in a separate interview. "If you read something about my accident and then saw me back to work, it would seem like, 'Hey, no big deal.' "

On April 11, 2005, Ryan was crushed between two vehicles while making a routine traffic stop on Interstate 71. He suffered multiple fractures and severe head injuries, and spent seven weeks in the hospital. Ryan's goal throughout 18 months of rehab was to go back to work.

Not some desk job. He wanted to be a patrolman, driving a squad car, just like before the accident.

He progressed in therapy. His upper body had never been in better shape. Despite the prosthetic leg, he could crouch, crawl, walk and climb stairs without difficulty.

But to be a street cop, he had to be able to run.

Learning to use the special prosthetic leg geared especially for work was hard. The leg was stiff, the hydraulics totally different from the leg he learned to walk on. It takes 30 percent more energy just to take a step with a prosthetic leg, his physical therapist reminded him.

Running took even more. Jogging one lap around the track would exhaust him and make his good leg ache the rest of the day. After weeks of trying, Ryan felt he would never be able to do two laps, much less the two miles he had to do to pass the police physical.

He gave up.

At home, Ryan was morose, verbally lashing out at their kids, Zachary, 4, and Emma, 3, for the slightest infractions. Barb would come home from work and he would ignore her. She would overlook the dishes piled in the sink and the toys all over the place, trying to put herself in his place. She knew their two-story house was hard for him to navigate. She cut him slack.

When grocery shopping or stopping for fast food, strangers approached and asked Ryan if he lost his leg in the Iraq war. After explaining that he's a police officer and that his amputated leg was the result of a car accident, Ryan said, they responded with an unimpressed, "Oh."

"As though how I lost my leg wasn't quite as glamorous," he said. Barb said he would be rude and just walk away without answering their questions.

She thought his mood and their relationship would improve as soon as they moved into their new home - a ranch with extra-wide hallways and a handicapped-accessible shower with benches inside and out where he could sit to take off his leg before getting in.

Moving helped. But as soon as the boxes were unpacked, his sour mood returned. So did his yelling. Barb said it was constant. Every morning, he'd wake up and heave a heavy sigh.

"How can you be miserable already?" Barb would ask. "You're not even out of bed yet."

By August, he had hit bottom. He told Barb he was sick of being Mr. Mom. There was no structure to his day. He had no place to go but therapy. He said he would never be well enough to get back to work.

Barb had had enough. Their son, Zachary, was acting up in day care. When Ryan was around, everyone was tense. Home was no longer a refuge. She told him she was leaving him. They had just celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I couldn't stay and let me and my kids become victims of his accident, too," she said. The next morning, she got up early and left on a two-day business trip. He took the kids to Barb's mom's house.

He was left alone for two days.

"An hour after she left, I knew I had to get my act together," he said.

He asked Barb to come back to talk. She did. He apologized and said he was going to quit feeling sorry for himself, quit yelling at the kids and quit treating her so poorly. He told her he made an appointment to talk to his doctor at MetroHealth Medical Center. He thought maybe he went off antidepressants too early.

After that, Barb said Ryan took charge of his physical therapy. He refocused on learning to run. He stopped yelling at the kids.

Ryan said he no longer minds strangers asking if he lost his leg in the war. Barb said he still tenses up. But he doesn't walk away without answering their questions.

Recently, he dreamed he was playing basketball with prosthetic leg on. Barb thinks that's because he has finally accepted his injury. Ryan shrugged. He isn't sure what it meant.

Ryan hopes going back to work will keep him motivated and happy. He said he still has a lot of work to do to run better and faster.

After his first day back to work, he and Barb talked over dinner about what's ahead. He said he's unsure when he will be able to work out. His day already is full with an eight-hour shift, picking up the kids from day care, making dinner and helping Barb put the kids to bed.

She chided him. "Maybe you'd have more time if you skipped watching 'Law & Order' and all the reruns of it," she said.

Barb said she is grateful Ryan is alive. Grateful for everything the city of Middleburg Heights did to keep them financially stable throughout this ordeal. She's happy he's back to work.

As she watched him get ready for his first day back, she said he seemed so content. Finally.

"We can become husband and wife again. We can be a family again. We can be normal again," she said.

She hoped his return to work was enough to make all that true.

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