Almost 20 years of coordinating support groups and peer mentoring has made Kenneth Ryno, 57, an expert when it comes to connecting with people with spinal cord injuries. During that time, Ryno, a C5-7 quad, has learned how to read newcomers and tailor his approach for the best chance of helping them adjust to their new reality. Sometimes people just want to talk; other times people just want to listen. But one thing that holds true in all situations is it is always better to show someone what they can do than to tell them about it.
“Many people with new injuries don’t think they can ever get in a kayak or go bowling, and then they go and watch someone else in a chair do it and next thing you know they’re participating. Once you see it, then you can believe it,” says Ryno.
On top of his years of experience working with people with new injuries, Ryno’s personal experience has given him unique insight into the rehab and recovery process. He has fractured his neck on three separate occasions. That’s three times in rehab and a whole lot of extra time in hospitals. “Every time I think I’m coming a long way, and I just have to learn again,” he says.
His experiences have helped him hone a simple philosophy when it comes to recovering from SCI: “Get active as soon as you possibly can, in any way, shape or form.”
That approach has led Ryno to a number of jobs in the 38 years since he was injured, but none have been as fulfilling or long lasting as his involvement with the SCI support group at Good Shepherd Rehab Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The meeting is a long drive from Ryno’s Kunkletown, Pennsylvania, home, but that doesn’t bother him. “That’s fine with me,” he says. “This is what I like to do. I am a mentor.”
After attending the support group on and off for years, Ryno started going all the time in 1999 and soon took on a leadership role. “A friend and I agreed to take it over on the condition that we could turn it around and make it a more outgoing, more active group,” he says. “It had been a very small group in part because it was repetitive, doing the same basics like bowel and bladder and psychological stuff over and over.”
Today the group has over 70 members on its mailing list and its offerings go well beyond the monthly meetings. “We’re very active,” says Ryno. “Together we kayak, shoot clay pigeons, go sailplane gliding, water skiing, bowling … this is what we’ve grown into.”
Ryno attributes the group’s growth and success to connecting with people during, or soon after, their injuries or rehab stays. “Getting someone to come to a meeting and talk with them while they’re in rehab can make a big difference,” says Ryno. “Even if they’re not ready, at least you can plant the seed about the support group, so they know about it when they are ready.”
Ryno has lots of stories of friends he has made through the group, and values the group’s impact on the local SCI community. “It is so rewarding to see somebody come out of that funk, that depression,” he says. “It doesn’t always work, but if you get through to one or two here and there, then those one or two share with others and it keeps spreading.”
Home Away From Home
On the Water
“I was not going to let my injury stop me from getting back out in the water again. When I first started getting back into the rivers, before kayaking, I would go down a river with three of the big truck tire tubes. I would have one for me, one for my wheelchair, and one for my cooler. Now I’m all about kayaking. One of the things I love about it is that when you are out on the water, everyone is on an equal level. You can’t really tell whether someone uses a wheelchair by looking at people kayaking. I provided input to a company called BoardSafe to help it develop an accessible kayak launch at Beltzville State Park. Now I am working for them. The dock simplifies everything by using a sturdy frame and accessible handrails to help you transfer out of your chair and into the kayak independently. It makes it safe and easy for everybody. It has been a dream come true for me.”
Craziest Thing I’ve Done Since My SCI
I scooted up three flights of stairs, out an attic and onto the roof of a three-story house on my butt to watch WrestleMania 30 on the roof with a friend.
Can’t Live Without:
If I Could Change One Law:
I’d fight with everything I have to make sure that every waterway is accessible, whether it be via a floating dock, a kayak launch, a fishing pier or even a pontoon.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I’ve been following United Spinal since it was Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. I joined up in the late ’90s, when I was co-chairman for our spinal cord support group at Good Shepherd Rehab Hospital in Allentown. The advocacy work and the support and training the organization provides are incredibly helpful.