Alvernia Magazine | Living a new normal

At age 14, Ryan Weber went through something usually only experienced by people four times his age, an event that has left him wise beyond his years.

“I remember waking up with severe head pain. I went into my parents’ room and collapsed,” Ryan says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in the middle of a massive stroke.”

A few days later, as their son lay unconscious, Weber’s parents learned he had aplastic anemia, a rare and serious condition in which the body fails to produce enough new blood cells, increasing risk for uncontrolled bleeding.

In Weber’s case, bleeding caused a hemorrhagic stroke that left him with permanent vision problems, partial paralysis on his left side and epilepsy.

Although Weber and his parents had some clues he was sick, such as recurring illnesses and bruises, they certainly weren’t prepared for what was to come. It was a stubborn blood blister on his lip that finally sent them to the doctor. As he underwent additional tests and prepared for a possible diagnosis of leukemia, Weber had the stroke.

Weber remembers the first few weeks in the hospital as being the worst, as he grappled with the transition from an athletic, happy-go-lucky 14-year-old to fighting for his life. “The sensation of being on a ventilator is something I will never forget,” he says.

Doctors had to remove part of Weber’s skull to relieve the brain swelling, and he spent months in the hospital and in rehab. He missed all of eighth grade.

At first, Weber says he was mad at the world. Feeling like a mere shadow of his old self, he self-isolated. “The most awkward time was when I finally got back to high school. I was so nervous and afraid the other kids would mock me.” His only friends at school became the faculty members. Looking back, he realizes he was only hurting himself.

So when the Temple, Pa., native started college at Alvernia, Weber made a fresh start. “I thought, these kids don’t know what I was like before the stroke. This is me now, and I need to get over what happened and move forward.”

Once Weber embraced his new normal, others accepted him as well. “I opened up to my classmates and made friends. I’m no longer hesitant to speak up in class,” he says.

In addition to accepting himself, Weber has learned to be more optimistic. “Your outlook on life is truly your biggest asset,” he says. “When the stroke first happened, I was miserable, and I felt sorry for myself. It was only when I made it a point to look on the bright side and get in a good mood that things got a lot easier for me.”

Another part of making things easier has meant preparing himself to live with disabilities while simultaneously studying for a career with a major in communication. Although he started out in 2012 as a secondary education major and soon made the Dean’s list, Weber shifted academic gears. He now entertains visions of being a professional journalist, and has had several pieces published, including a personal account about overcoming his health challenges.

He knows his life will never be like others his age, but he’s ready. “With the help of a 24-hour driving service and maybe a seizure dog, I hope to be able to commute to a job and live on my own,” he says.

As he continues to adapt, Weber gets by in part by laughing. He watches old comedies and tries to find humor in situations that may otherwise frustrate him. “My father taught me the power of laughter, and he encouraged me to watch the movie ‘Patch Adams,’” he says.

Patch Adams tells the true story of a medical doctor who often donned clown attire to cheer up patients and believed laughter, joy and creativity were integral parts of the healing process. In Weber’s case, laughter has indeed been healing. “I am in remission with my anemia, and I’ve learned to do everything pretty well with one arm.

Weber says laughter has truly been the best medicine. “It is the philosophy I try to follow in life to keep a positive attitude, and I recommend it to everyone.”