Love, Loss, and Legacy: Ryan & Stephanie's Story
By Stephanie Cunningham
Ryan had that kind of smile that instantly put you at ease and a laugh that you couldn't help but enjoy listening too. He had a wicked dark sense of humor and didn't care about saying the "appropriate thing" around friends or even strangers yet had the unique ability to present his point of view in a concise manner and articulate well under pressure. It was likely because he thoroughly enjoyed having the spotlight on him; he joked about returning to his "adoring fans" when interviewed by local stations about some EMS-related issues. He knew his stuff and truly wanted to do right by his patients and provide the most appropriate care, which wasn't always a rush to the hospital - one of the reasons the Community Health Paramedic positions at ATCEMS appealed to him.
It was complete chance that we met, an algorithm on Match.com somehow decided that because we listed ourselves as "active" and "liked dogs" that we would be great together. I don't care how it happened, I'm just glad he was the first person recommended to me one Friday evening when I started perusing an online dating site before it was even commonplace to admit to online dating! Meeting may have been chance, but being together still involved a lot of blood, sweat and tears. At the time we met, I was considering putting myself through a bridge course to go from I-85 to Paramedic. As a graduate of UT-Austin, I loved the Biology and neuroscience courses and research that I was involved in, but there was an inexplainable draw to EMS. He cautiously discouraged the additional time and money, knowing that Austin-Travis County EMS was about to stop credentialing paramedics.
I regularly teased him that our brains were making it easy for us; the oxytocin and dopamine were surging early-on and knowing this, I approached the relationship with far more caution than he did. He still wanted me to help shop for a house, his charm won out, and we bought what we dubbed our "White Picket Fence" less than a year later and filled it with 2 dogs. I was the daughter of a career Army pilot and sister to 2 brothers who also served so Ryan's atypical work schedule was not a deterrent and our strong personalities complemented well. That's not to say he wasn't a complete pain in the a** at times and I, in turn knew how to push his buttons. We weren't perfect, but we worked really well together. I found my partner, my best friend, and the man I loved through good and bad and I feel incredibly lucky for that. Ryan wanted to stay at Austin for 20, buy 4 and have a pension in his 40's. Knowing that he wanted children and a family, my plan was to go back to school through a physician's assistant program.
At the end of 2014, the plan changed. The accumulation of stresses, especially associated with the system, was destroying the man I loved and retirement from Austin was not an option. I forced the issue that before the end of 2015 we would be gone - to another department or for him to go back to school while I worked - whatever he thought was right. There were bad days, and sometimes bad weeks, but the roller coaster always made its way toward an upward climb again. The evidence that we were coming out of the low was Ryan's resolution to focus on diet and exercise with some regularity to feel better physically, to moderate drinking on his off days better and to really work hard to get a sleep routine that worked for him since he almost always wound up working night shifts downtown. This behavior resolution came again over the Christmas holiday in 2014. Ryan was on an upward climb and I breathed a sigh of relief. We decided to get married in May of 2015, once my work was in a natural down time, and to save money, we planned to just elope and spend 2 weeks in Thailand to rest, recuperate, and enjoy each other.
The second weekend in January, the roller coaster took a nose dive and on January 13, 2015 I missed his call while I was on the phone at work. I looked down to see a text from Ryan that just said "911" which seems obvious: call now. We talked for almost half an hour and had a few laughs actually mixed in with the conversation. He said he felt better and was going to try and sleep. He called again at 11:59 and I never had the chance to hear his voice again after that 9 minute call, which he terminated. I was home within an hour, fully believing as I walked to the door that he was in crisis but alive. He was not and I had missed him. "Survival mode" is the only thing I can describe as my reaction. It made sense to start making a list of what to do and who to call. Made sense that his mom would need to be picked up from the airport that night. Nothing else made sense. You can know without really knowing. I'm forever grateful to the field personnel, to the individuals, both strangers and friends, who moved to help when they themselves were hurting. It would be incorrect to say that I was thankful to the department or the city during that time.
In April 2015, Austin-based STAR Flight nurse Kristin McLain died during a rescue. I was up late reading and working. The emotions of the day Ryan died tore through me again as I thought about how her husband was getting the news that would change every day going forward. What happened that night, perhaps looked the same, but what happened later that week was different. Three months before, it felt like we were the dirty little secret, not the provider that dedicated their life to service. The comparison between the two services compounded the loneliness and the stigma that Ryan was not worthy of remembrance.
I remember talking to another Paramedic's wife and she told me that while the symptoms that I shared about watching Ryan struggle were eerily similar to her husband's, she knew he would be ok because he was excited about the baby they were about to have. I couldn't tell her that Ryan text me 36 hours before ultimately he died to say "I don't know if I tell you this enough, but you're the love of my life. I am lucky enough to have a future wife that challenges me to be a better man." I followed that text by telling him what I thought the name of our daughter should be, to which he replied "it's beautiful."
We want to shield ourself from the belief that tragedy could happen to us and so we search for evidence that we are different than the people to whom chaos and pain come. It's protective, and it's understandable. It doesn't, however, do much to forge community and empathy among each other, but it does isolate those who struggle. As I have seen and heard of more spouses losing their first responder to suicide, the initial reaction has been "I hope they don't feel alone". It's what has prompted and driven me to try and make connections with those families in the aftermath. They are no different than the families for whom American flags line the highway and even strangers pack churches and funeral halls to recognize and thank for their service and their life.
It's odd to describe "shock" and "the fog" from the perspective of living it; the scientist in me wishes someone had been taking fMRI scans regularly during the intensities of grief in the first 2 years especially. I had the energy and resolution to do things like continue to work full time and navigate mortgage closing without any help and take care of some necessary house renovations. Those seemed obvious to have to continue. At the same time I cried in the grocery store when I saw any young father caring for his children or randomly at a phrase, song, or smell. I ran a marathon 1 year, 1 month, and 1 day after Ryan died, but I also would regularly go 4-6 days without showering during that timeframe. I lost close to 20% of my body weight and drank like a soldier more frequently than is pleasant to admit. I read so many books on grief and shame and autobiographies on those who experienced loss and suffering. I researched PTSD and adrenal fatigue. I filled many journals with thoughts and memories. My addiction changed from alcohol to reading/writing to exercise to travel; throwing myself fully into anything that would change the void that I felt in half of my body and the brokenness that I felt in the rest. I wanted to feel again and was yet terrified of what that would mean. There was definitely a dichotomy to the grief process and not just emotionally but also of having the capacity to do certain things and desperately wishing for help or wondering why other decisions seemed impossible. Those amazing people who came into my life, many times randomly, that I learned the definition of resilience and persistence from, and who shared their vulnerabilities and experiences with me are invaluable friendships to me.
I have a hard time with the phrase that says that "good can come from suffering". There was nothing good about Ryan dying and Life is vicious enough to regularly "teach" us or challenge our resolve without any additional help. I do believe that good can come after suffering, however. So that others will know the man you were, by the woman you loved, Sweetheart.