Warmest regards: ‘Little engine that could’ still chugging
There are some people we can never forget, regardless of how long it’s been since we’ve seen them.
That how I feel about Ken Ryno.
Through the years I’ve interviewed some incredible people - none more so than the Kunkletown resident.
Simply put, Ken is the most inspiring person I’ve ever met.
It was more than a decade ago that I was privileged to witness Ken walk out of Gnaden Huetten Rehab.
Hospital personnel with tears in their eyes lined the halls, serving as an honor guard as Ken walked by on his way out the door.
What was so special about Ken’s walk?
For 24 years he was unable to walk.
After a motorcycle accident at 17, he became a quadriplegic. With no trace of motor activity, he was told he would never walk again.
Day in and day out, Ken lay in bed, trying to move his legs.
“I watched people walk by and pictured in my head making my muscles move,” he recalled.
He was able to get a bit of movement back in one arm but nothing more.
That didn’t stop him from trying.
Each and every day he kept trying to make his muscles move.
How long would you continue to do that if nothing worked?
For 23 years, Ken never stopped.
“I refused to give up,” he declared.
When he developed bed sores, it turned out to be a stroke of luck that brought in outpatient therapist JoAnn Sienkiewicz.
In working with Ken, she noticed something extraordinary.
“Instead of finding the muscle atrophy I expected, I detected muscle response in his hips and legs. I was shocked,” she said.
It was JoAnn and another physical therapist who convinced Gnaden Huetten Rehab to admit Ken.
Although he couldn’t stand or walk when admitted, he made a vow he would walk out of there on his own two feet.
After his jubilant homecoming it was touching to watch him stand up in his house for the first time.
I called Ken “The Little Engine That Could.”
What impressed me as much as his physical accomplishments were his unshakable faith and incredible positive attitude.
Ken is joyous to be around. He has an incredible joy that’s contagious. I walked away from interviews with him feeling like I was drenched in sunshine.
I moved away and didn’t hear from Ken in 18 years. But I never forgot him and his can-do-it attitude.
On his Facebook page I was delighted to see photos of Ken kayaking, including whitewater kayaking.
When we connected again, I expected to hear about more triumphs of The Little Engine That Could.
Indeed, there were triumphs.
Ken was part of a team that designed a special kayak launch now helping many handicapped people across the country.
Hired as a spokesperson by Board Safe Docks, he found great satisfaction helping physically challenged individuals discover the joys of water sports.
He is a tireless advocate for those with disabilities and for organizations that help them.
The best thing that ever happened to him, he said, is when he reconnected with therapist JoAnn Sienkiewicz. They married in 2008.
They both share a strong faith and find beauty in each and every day.
Amid their bliss, there are tragedies and major physical setbacks for Ken.
Multiple back surgeries that failed left him unable to walk again.
“That doesn’t stop him from living a very full life,” says his wife.
He continues to mentor people with spinal cord injuries and is extensively involved in advocacy groups.
Through the advocacy group Team River Runner he was able to lead a group of blind children down the Juniata River.
But the physical challenges keep coming. In 2018 his van was T-boned at a 4-way stop sign, leaving Ken with concussions and serious heart inflammation from the force of the accident.
On Mother’s Day of 2019 he coded when he woke up unable to breathe. Diagnosed with Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, his heart was functioning at 5 percent.
He was given a heart pump, was intubated and placed on a ventilator.
“I asked everyone to pray for him. We are people of faith and we put our lives in God’s hand. No matter what happened we knew he would be OK. Not that he would survive, not that he would be healed but simply things would be OK,” said JoAnn.
Complications kept happening and Ken’s lungs kept collapsing. He needed nine chest tubes and video assisted thoracic surgery to tack his lungs to his rib cages.
At one point doctors said they needed to amputate his leg above the knee. Inexplicably, at the last minute his circulation improved.
Beating the odds, Ken was able to come home on a ventilator, along with a pacemaker, feeding tube, pain pump, oxygen, a cough assist and chest percussion vest.
In 2019 alone, he underwent 21 surgeries.
Yet, through all that trauma, the joy never left his life. Both Ken and JoAnn say they are buoyed by joy and love.
He continues to conquer physical challenges.
His trachea was damaged to the point where doctors said he would never be able to talk again.
Yet, he’s talking, he’s joyful and he’s singing praise for each day of life.
The most remarkable thing about Ken Ryno continues to be his indomitable spirit.
I’ll never give up,” he vowed again. “The little engine that could is still chugging.”