Ryan Birmingham – The Life of Ryan

In the beginning, the Birmingham family consisted of father Wayne and mother Carol. In 1979 they were blessed with a wonderful baby boy… me! After me came two younger sisters: Meridith then Stephanie. With three years between each child, this loving family had it all. The parents provided everything for their children without spoiling them. Growing up, my sisters and I were heavily involved in our sports. While being successful in all of these sports, my parents still thought our education was more important and pushed us to achieve. This worked out well for us because Stephanie is now a teacher and Meridith is an Immigration Officer. However, what happened in The Life of Ryan affected not only me, but my entire family. This is my story.

As a boy, I was only worried about sports. As a teenager, I was only worried about girls. As I grew older, I started to worry about success. In my late teens, after working part time at Canadian Tire and realizing that I needed to continue with my education, I applied to Brock University.

With the realization that I needed to earn more money to afford Brock, and with my friend having been hired on at Willodell golf course, I myself applied, as I thought it would be a great experience with better pay. I started in July 1998 under the direction of the superintendent Angelo Toto and spent my summer as a labourer until my first semester at Brock University began.

My goal at Brock was to become a Phys Ed teacher. After a semester or two of learning about Rudolph Laban’s theory of dance – which was the philosophy behind Brock’s physical education teachings – I realized that perhaps this wasn’t the best choice for me.
I also began to realize that in this day and age, a successful and stable area of expertise would involve servicing the baby boomers who would be retiring and participating in leisure activities. I then proceeded to change schools and ended up at Niagara College in the Recreation and Leisure department. While in school, I continued to work at Willodell, loving every minute of it. After a year of study, I realized that recreation and leisure didn’t appeal to me and I found myself asking what I should do instead. One night in the middle of summer 1999, as I was thinking about my future, confused, I asked for a sign: “can someone please tell me what I should be doing?!” Two days after asking this question, I was touring the golf course with my boss Angelo and he turned to me and told me that I would make a great superintendent. Realizing this was “the sign”, I said “okay!” with certainty. To this day, I’ve never regretted that decision.

From that time on, I placed all my focus on turfgrass management and strived to be one of the best turf managers in my field. Angelo made me his assistant and I quickly realized that I was going to need some more education. I decided not to continue at Niagara College and instead worked towards obtaining my pesticide spraying license. In the summer of that year, I found the University of Guelph at Ridgetown College. They had what I needed to fulfill my education to obtain a diploma in Horticulture, so I enrolled to start classes in the fall. I spent two years there and ended up with an education and a fiancée. Shortly after that I got my Integrated Pest Management (IPM) certificate and continued working at Willodell. All friends and family involved, hoped that I would take over Angelo’s position when he retired, including Angelo. However…

At Christmas 2003, I became engaged with the hope of being married in 2005. In the fall of 2004, my fiancée became pregnant and I realized that I truly was taking the next big step in life. I realized that Willodell, while providing me a great future, was not where I wanted to be. Therefore, it was the time for me to leave.

My fiancée and I decided to move to the Sarnia area so she could be close to her family. I did this without a job, but with confidence. That winter of 2005, I was hired on to my first job at Brights Grove golf course as superintendent. This was a 9 hole facility that Mike Weir played at when he was young. While I was learning a lot and gaining skills, I continued to strive for a better job. In June, I was married and my daughter was born that July.

The following year, I was hired on as superintendent at Black Creek Golf Course, a better 9 hole golf facility, that was closer to my home in Petrolia. This course allowed me to better myself as a superintendent thanks to its bigger and better land and equipment, which allowed me to try harder and learn more.
I enjoyed my job at Black Creek, but I knew I needed something to do over the winter.

I was then hired to work using my own shop at Black Creek, sharpening and fixing any equipment that Tom McLean of Complete Turf Equipment needed. In the spring of 2007, I was hired on as a consultant to guide the new superintendant at Bright’s Grove as he learned the course. By summer 2007, I had 2 golf courses, a sharpening job and the family’s farm to worry about. AKA: I had spread myself too thin.

Growing up I had a good family structure and picked wonderful friends, this allowed me to be confident. With this, in my twenties I became a person who always went out and worked for what I wanted. With each challenge I faced, my confidence grew higher and higher. For instance, being engaged with a baby on the way, I felt confident enough to move my fiancée and I home to her family, with a plan to find a bigger and better job, and I did! At this time things were going great, and with the purchase of a new home in a short period of time major life changes were happening that felt successful; however, looking back I now realize this was too fast.

Being a Jack of all trades I was doing well with many things, but I was not able to master my marriage or help fix what was wrong. I was also overwhelmed by the crazy work schedule that I thought I could handle. I became fatigued. After confirming a proper watering schedule at Bright’s Grove, and assisted by a few extra bottles of beer, I was in a serious car accident on July 6, 2007.

At the scene of the accident, my Glasgow Coma Scale rating, which measures level of consciousness was 3/15, meaning I was deeply unconscious. This led to the diagnosis of a severe catastrophic brain injury. I also broke my C2, dislocated my right collar bone, and had a laceration on my right forehead. Scans of my brain showed a small hemorrhage on my left temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that controls language and memory. My right eye was also blurry.

After many long hours of testing, I was diagnosed with deficits in the areas of verbal learning and memory, expressive vocabulary, communications, reading, writing, conducting numerical operations, confrontational naming and verbal fluency. I was also in emotional distress because of a) the dissolution of my marriage and b) the outcome of my accident. In short, I messed up.

My accident put me in the hospital in London until August 13, at which point I was asked by my wife to go home with my parents because she was filing for divorce. At the time I needed someone the most, she wasn’t there. Apparently, the “in sickness and in health, till death do us part” vow did not apply to my wife. At that time, my family rose to the occasion to make sure I knew I was not alone, and my original family unit became stronger. We all realized how lucky we were to have each other and understood the need to help each other during our tough times.

I was told that when I awoke from my coma I could not speak, but eventually began to speak French to communicate. Over time, I relearned enough English to get by day-to-day. At that time all I had was memories of being a superintendent in charge of golf courses and running a family, but at the same time I had a hard time labeling a picture of a cat. This sparked a very stressful time that was spiraling down further each time I realized that this was something I could do easily before. I was depressed beyond words and thought of giving it all up, but there was one thing that kept me going, and that was my daughter Grace. My sense of identity and push came from family and friends standing beside me to help me not forget who I was before the accident. When even the push was hard to handle, after a three week interval I was able to see Grace again and this allowed me to stop and re-realize that it was all worth it. So I moved on. After all I did still have responsibilities as father. Having these family members, friends and a big duty as a father pushed me to go a lot further than ever predicted. I was coupled with a drive for success and a want to prove everyone wrong, which stimulated me and kept me moving to see how far I could go.

I want to encourage survivors to realize that they don’t always have to listen to what is foretold to them by specialists or doctors about their condition. I want to challenge survivors to beat their odds and stand up taller.

Once out of the hospital and back at mom and dad’s, I began participating in multidisciplinary rehab in an effort to get back to work and life and my daughter. This was a hard time for me because the golf course used to provide me with a means for escape during my troubled times and I treated it like my little baby. Now that I was in my most troubled time, I couldn’t get to my best escape and needed to face reality. I needed to relearn how to speak, read and write, all while having to manage my depression. I also had balance issues. After the accident, I lost about 50 pounds but a lot of this was due to lost muscle mass. Once my balance improved and my spinal injury had healed, I turned to running as a means to escape and get my endorphins running. After many months of training and feeling better, I focused on challenging myself again in an effort to move forward. At this time, I was allowed to take an online course through Guelph University. The success from this course pushes me to take more to finish off my Maintaining Golf Courses certificate.

Finally, after less that one year (which I’m told by my rehab team is remarkable) I was allowed to look at volunteering at a golf course. My first choice was to go back to Willodell to work with my old boss Angelo. During my time away, Angelo had retired and was now there as a worker and therefore didn’t have any more pull. Unfortunately, because of the golf course’s insurance policies, I wasn’t allowed to volunteer there. However, Angelo guided me by talking to the superintendant at the Legends on the Niagara Golf Course, Tom Newton. Tom was the assistant at Willodell back when I first started there.

I went for an interview with Tom in June 2008 and asked him if there was anything that I could do at his golf course. He said that while my resume spoke for itself, because of their insurance policies volunteering wouldn’t be possible there either. It was at this time that I realized if a golf course run by the provincial government couldn’t allow me to volunteer, then no one probably could, therefore, I put my foot down and talked to my rehab team about allowing me to be hired on as a part time employee in September. Understanding my drive and enthusiasm, coupled with my history of determination and success, they agreed that I could handle it as long as I went slow at the start and listened to recommendations made by my occupational therapist and superintendent.

I called Tom, who was excited about having me become part of his team. Although the original plan was for me to start in September, he asked if I was available to start at the beginning of July. With my team’s support, I agreed and was able to start work on July 2, 2008, just less than one year after my accident. Coming from a small 9 hole facility, and knowing how it works I had a lot of excitement to have the opportunity to work at Legends, because it allowed me to see how a large operation with 45 holes and a practice facility is run with a large number of employees.

Part time status only allowed me to work 24 hours per week. When I first started, this was split into three 8 hour days with my rehabilitation appointments on opposite days. While we wanted to figure out if I still had the ability to do my job, it was decided that I should start off slow, doing simple tasks like raking the sand traps. At Legends, however, there are so many sand traps that this was an all day event.

After a month or so, I was asked to cut tee decks. Toward the end of the fall, I was asked to stay on and worked every morning for 4 hours. When I helped them aerate the greens of all 45 holes, the length of my shift increased to 8 to 10 hours. All the while, I was keeping track of my fatigue levels and realizing that I could still handle the work provided I got myself to sleep at a decent hour. By then end of the season, after a successful several months, I decided that I was ready for a full time position in the spring. With that, the team and I decided that it was time for a reassessment.

I first started with my speech-language reassessment, which looked at how I was doing in the areas of word finding, verbal expression, reading, writing, attention, memory, problem solving and social language. I had improved dramatically in all areas but still had some mild difficulty with word finding. Over time, I had learned to compensate for these word finding troubles so the average stranger would not know I had an issue. My neuropsychologist’s report showed that all of my skills had improved to a normal to above average level, except for my fine motor skills in both hands. His recommendation for my move forward plan was to go slowly, ask for feedback and stick to a routine. I felt I could do all of this while working full time.

I was hired on full time in the spring of 2009 and prepared for the year by moving close to the golf course. This made my life easier because it cut out my commute and allowed me to regain my independence. Up until the move, I had been living with my parents since my accident. The plan was to start work at the beginning of April, so moving in February gave me the time to make a slow transition without becoming overwhelmed.

After a year full of new surprises and learning situations, I am driven to continue to learn more about theories and practices in managing a golf course in the here and now, with ideas that will lead to success in the future. With a successful year under my belt, I am also focusing on other factors in my life which I want to re-establish. The primary focus is with my girlfriend of 2 years, Melissa. She has been beside me through all the good times and bad, and is very quick to remind me how far I’ve come. With her support, I have been able to allow myself the comfort to accept the distance between my daughter and I. She has been wonderful at helping with the driving and has allowed my parents to have a break. Also, I am driven to learn more and keep up to date with my education after being a part of and viewing the new concepts and strategies in golf course management at Legends. I continue to take on-line courses throughout the year at the University of Guelph.

Since the accident, one thing that has helped me to move forward has been proving the professionals wrong, and I have gained self-worth in providing people with something to inspire them. I am proof of the fact that things will get better and I believe that you’re never given anything that you can’t handle. It is this knowledge and wisdom that allows me to discover life in every way now. From this accident I’ve learned to look at things in all perspectives instead of the blind light. Melissa, who is very intelligent, believes that everything happens for a reason, even though it’s not always there for you to understand right away.

I’ve realized that every day is a new learning experience. I am getting back what I had before the accident, with better things than I could ever imagine. Now, I get a huge satisfaction in life by paying it forward. I know the importance of helping friends, and I am speaking and writing for brain injury associations.

I am not done! I can improve everyday! The success I’ve had often pushes me to look into the future to prepare for and conquer the next challenge. This does not allow me to be happy with today and is similar to the way I was living before the accident. My ongoing personal challenge is to be happy with today instead of always looking at the future. Now that I realize this, although it took a while, makes the most sense and gives me a calm feeling. My rehab team tells me that I have made a quick and impressive recovery. No matter how much you plan ahead, life can completely change in an instant. Just as soon as you figure life out and you feel you are on the right path, things seem to change for better or for worse and make you realize that you still have more to learn. Never stop learning. The key thing to my sanity since the accident has been looking at the positive in this experience and making the best of the situation. I challenge you to be better than you were because we are given every available tool you need to get better. Never be too proud to ask for help. Use absolutely every resource that is available to you and your team, and try to have fun doing it because it makes rehab a lot easier.


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