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Courage To Come Back: Former airline pilot charts new course as an accessibility advocate

Jim Ryan and his wife Isabelle are seen in front of their home in Chilliwack. Jim is the recipient of the 2018 Courage To Come Back Award in the Physical Rehabilitation category. (John Ackermann, NEWS 1130 Photo)

'I was instantly paralyzed. I actually drowned,' says Jim Ryan, describing one fateful day in Hawaii

Life has completely changed for the Courage To Come Back Award recipient in the Physical Rehabilitation category

'Life isn't where you're from. Life is where you're going,' says Chilliwack man being honoured for Courage To Come Back

CHILLIWACK (NEWS 1130) – Life really can change in a split-second. Just ask the subject of our next Courage To Come Back profile. Jim Ryan is the recipient of the award in the Physical Rehabilitation category.

“Our lives changed, just over two years ago,” Jim recalls. He and his wife Isabelle were in Hawaii on a family vacation.

“We had a wonderful life. We raised four children and they’re all grown up and moved on now. And that’s why we were in Hawaii. We were just starting to be empty-nesters.”

Jim, a pilot by trade, had been looking forward to a sunny retirement. “I was an airline pilot, a captain, I’d been with [Westjet] for almost 15 years when I was injured. I’d flown for almost 40 years, including 10 years in the air force.”

He went into the ocean for one last dip and that’s when his life changed forever. “And the last wave came and I dove and the wave drove my head in the sand. And I was instantly paralyzed. I actually drowned.”

His wife screamed for help and luckily, crews were able to revive him. Jim would spent nine and a half months in the hospital. He’s been back home in Chilliwack for just over a year. But life is a lot different now. His injury left him a total quadriplegic.

“I live in a wheelchair and I control my wheelchair with my head,” he explains.

Jim soon found even simple things were not so simple anymore. “Going for a walk is not the same. We have to really limit where we go. One step is a total barrier for me so it has to be fairly flat and a very even surface for us to get out.”

“We just do not travel like we used to,” he adds. “That’s part of the reason we’re renovating our house is that we’ll spend a lot of time at home now.”

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The Ryan home is being remodeled to be more accessible. “I use voice-operated software for my computer, automatic door opener, and I have incredible support from family and friends and my wife.”

It’s because of that support that made Jim want to give back. So he asked none other than “Man in Motion” Rick Hansen for some advice.

“I said, ‘You know, Rick, I’ve really been fortunate to have the support of family and friends and what could I do to sort of pay it forward?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can come and be an ambassador for our foundation!'”

And it’s through his work with the Rick Hansen Foundation that he educates and inspires others. “I’ve done lectures at the University of Fraser Valley here in Chilliwack, I’ve been at UBC talking to various groups, and local schools and high schools and service clubs, so, I continue to carry on with this.”

While he’s humbled to receive his Courage To Come Back award, Jim says he’s just like anyone else trying to live their life as best they can. If anything, he hopes it can help people realize that people in wheelchairs are really just like anyone else. “That we’re just people who look a little bit different, perhaps walk a little different, or not walk at all.”

“As I always say, life isn’t where you’re from. Life is where you’re going. So, we just tell people, ‘You have to keep moving forward.'”

NEWS 1130 is a proud sponsor of the Coast Mental Health Courage To Come Back Awards, which are being handed out on Thursday May 10th at the Vancouver Convention Centre.