By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Editor’s note: Ryan Duffy’s parents update his progress periodically at the website caringbridge.org/visit/ryanduffy1
There are two distinct pains in Ryan Duffy’s life.
One, he’ll talk about openly. A child in a theater or a grocery store will see Duffy in his wheelchair and ask in that innocently curious way, “What happened?”
And he’ll tell them about what happened one year ago today, when he was standing on a dock with friends in Key West, Fla., as night neared morning.
“Whatever you do, don’t dive headfirst,” Duffy will say, and then he’ll laugh.
That Duffy can find a trace of levity in the accident that changed his life forever speaks to his spirit, which has remained undamaged. Three months after his Mississippi State baseball career had ended, with his life was stretched out before him, everything changed in an instant.
The life that could have been disappeared when Duffy, being his usual fearless self, dove headfirst into the Atlantic Ocean. His memory of that night is clear up to that point, and then it becomes muddled.
After landing in the shallow waters, Duffy floated lifelessly, not breathing. So of course he doesn’t recall being dragged onto the beach, or the off-duty firefighter who administered CPR, or the ride to the local emergency room.
Duffy remembers waking up in the hospital, all feeling gone from the neck down.
The details that he remembers and that he’s learned by talking with others, he doesn’t discuss those much. The resulting condition, though, is another matter.
“If we’re in Walmart, people come up and talk to him all the time,” said Duffy’s mother, Cathy, “and he wants to tell people because he knows they’re curious, and they’re looking at him. ‘What the heck happened to you?’ He’s always willing to tell them.”
Dealing with pain
Duffy will always be in pain. That’s just a product of breaking his neck.
He’s been prescribed approximately 30 different kinds of pills, more than half of which he must take daily. Some of those are pain pills, and Duffy’s parents say he’s dealing with his discomfort better than they’d expected.
The other kind of pain Duffy experiences – he tries to mask that, too. It rises whenever he turns on a baseball game.
Duffy watched MSU’s 2011 season opener, and for about five innings was really into it. Then he got quiet.
After that, he’d find reasons not to watch. He’d need to take a nap, or he’d want to go to the movies, or any other reason he could find.
Duffy was not drafted out of MSU, but he’d had a productive career, hitting .334 with 27 home runs and 99 RBIs in three seasons. Then suddenly, baseball was taken away from him.
“I really wish he could get that back, because he loves the game so much,” said his father, Kevin. “I’d sit there and watch college games with him all weekend if he’d let me. He just can’t do it. It’s tough. It’s very emotional for him. You can’t push him.”
Duffy did find some joy in MSU’s postseason run earlier this summer. The Bulldogs reached the Super Regional round before bowing to Florida in three games. In Game 2, his former teammate, Nick Vickerson, blasted a walk-off home run to keep the Bulldogs alive.
Kevin was in his office at their home in Malabar, Fla., watching the game on another TV. When Vickerson hit it out, Kevin heard Ryan shout from the next room, “It’s gone! On my God! Vickerson! He’s my boy!”
Screaming is not something that’s easy for Ryan. He wears a tracheal cuff, which controls the flow of air over the vocal cords. If it’s not inflated, he can’t speak but breathes more easily. And he can only breathe with the help of a ventilator, which requires 24/7 attention. The Duffys have caregivers to help watch after their son, as both of them must work full-time.
That’s just one of several challenges Duffy faces each day. Meals take an hour. His morning routine – getting out of bed, bathing, getting dressed, getting into his chair – takes hours.
Duffy goes to rehab every Tuesday and Thursday, getting his limbs stretched and his body moved around for an hour each visit.
Between him and his wheelchair, Duffy is a 523-pound load, according to his mother. He can operate the chair via a tube through which he blows or sucks air. He’s become very good at it.
When MSU beat Clemson to qualify for the College World Series in 2007, Duffy, then a barely used redshirt freshman, did backflips on the field.
That was the angle from which he approached all of life.
“He was fearless,” Kevin Duffy said. “There was nothing he was afraid of.”
Life since the accident has given Ryan plenty of reason to fear, but his spirit remains intact.
“He’s just a fun, fun, fun kid,” Kevin said. “And you would think as much fun as he had, and all the fun things he got to do, and all the enjoyment he had at Mississippi State University, you would think this would have just destroyed him. But you really have to know him, and if you really know him you understand that there’s more to him than that.”
Ryan tries to make life seem as normal as possible, especially when visitors come calling. Even when he was in the hospital – he was released in early December – and unable to speak, he would mouth things to friends that reminded them of their time together in college.
Ryan tries to put people at ease that way. Friends he’s known and loved for years come in the room and aren’t sure how to act or what to say, but that unease doesn’t last long.
MSU assistant coaches Lane Burroughs and Butch Thompson visited Duffy earlier this month while on the recruiting trail.
“Your heart just breaks,” Burroughs said. “It’s kind of strange, because I think it lifted me and coach Thompson more being around him, seeing that he was in good spirits.”
Burroughs was told by Kevin that Ryan was in severe pain that day due to a rough night. But he never let on.
Talking on the phone is a laborious task for Duffy, and while he enjoys seeing friends, his initial eagerness to socialize has faded a bit.
His mother doesn’t think he’s withdrawing.
“He doesn’t want them feeling sorry for him, he doesn’t want them pitying them,” she said. “He loves to see his old buddies, but he just wants it to be like old times. And he doesn’t want them to be sad, you know.”
Duffy will likely remain in his current physical state the rest of his life, although his parents are hopeful he’ll be eligible for a diaphragm pacing system. It’s a surgically implanted device that allows patients with spinal cord injuries to breathe and speak more easily and can eventually eliminate the need for a ventilator.
Regardless of what the future holds for Duffy, his parents say he’s at peace with the present. He’s able to be with his family, which includes brother Nick, and the MSU community has reached out to him both through the “Do It for Duffy” campaign – which Cathy said has raised more than $50,000 – and in other ways.
One man from Naples recently stopped by the Duffy’s house unannounced, introduced himself, and offered to fly Ryan to Starkville in a private jet whenever he was up for it.
He’s got to work his way up to that. A trip to Naples, his hometown, is the first goal. But to go back to Starkville for a weekend baseball series – it might well make his emotional pain more acute, or it might be cathartic.
“That’s real high on his list,” Kevin Duffy said, “but right now he’s not convinced he can do it. He’s very, very strong-willed, which is good and bad. If he thinks he can do something, he’ll do it. And for his situation he’s done some pretty amazing things.
“But by the same token, If he is sure that he can’t do something, you can’t talk to him about it. He’s got to make his own steps forward and decide what he can and can’t do.”