Beyond the Sliding Doors | life after critical illness with Ryan Gibson

We invited Ryan and Sarah Gibson on the show for an inspiring talk about their experiences dealing with critical illness, rehabilitation, managing expectations and life after the intensive care unit.

Ryan's Story

On August 8th 2015, Ryan suffered a traumatic injury to his neck after diving into shallow water at Lake Hartwell. He broke his C7 vertebrae and suffered damaged to C6. He was paralyzed from the chest down and suffered loss of feeling/strength to parts of his hands and arms on impact. Ryan was rushed to the nearest trauma center where they quickly realigned his spine, and within a few short days gave him surgery to reconstruct the damage to his spine. His spinal cord was very badly bruised, and swollen but not severed. Meaning his injury is considered incomplete. Exactly one week after his surgery, he was transported back home to Atlanta to continue his care and begin rehab at The Shepherd Center.

Welcome to Holland

It’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?” I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy. But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to some horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place. So you must go out and buy a new guidebook. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

The pain of that will never, ever, go away, because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

Experiences in the ICU

Both Ryan and Sarah mention overall satisfaction with their ICU stay. One of Ryan's most memorable experiences was working the PT/OT; even if it was only for 20 minutes, he felt that early mobility in the ICU gave him a sense of purpose and motivation while he was waiting for his body to heal.

Sarah touches on the need for improved communication between hospital teams (i.e. ICU/internal medicine/consultants) and the family.

Interestingly, both early mobility and communication are considered key components of quality ICU liberation by SCCM.

Take Home Points

  1. Coming to the ICU is the worst moment of a patient's life. The families feel this too. What's routine to us is not routine to them

  2. We only see a snapshot of a patient's life at the bedside. They are people - with complex relationships, hopes & dreams just like us. These things play into their medical care more than we may realize.

  3. Life after critical illness is going to be different. Sometimes dramatically different. We should help our patient's and families to manage expectations prior to discharge.

  4. People with disabilities are people, and they don't always want you to feel bad for them or treat them differently.

  5. We would all do well by our patients to do a better job communicating - with patients, families, consultants and other members of the medical team.


Check out the Ryan Sarah P Gibson (RSPG) Foundation

The Ryan and Sarah P. Gibson Foundation (RSPG Foundation) is dedicated to encouraging and motivating people living with spinal cord injuries to be self-confident self-reliant self-sufficient. We help individuals receive quality rehabilitative treatments. We work with community stakeholders to educate and raise awareness about spinal cord injuries.

Learn more at


Disclaimer: we are not promoting, endorsing or otherwise affiliated with any medical facilities mentioned in this episode. All entities mentioned are simply a component of Ryan & Sarah's story. Information continaed within the show do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Pulmcast.