MISHAWAKA, Ind. — Ryan Shull was 12 when he died a week ago at a nursing home for children with chronic medical conditions, but at 56 pounds, he looked half his age.
He never walked. Aside from a few favorite words and short phrases, he never spoke.
But his family, friends and caregivers, gathering for his memorial service Saturday at Bubb Funeral Chapel, said he cheerfully made the most of his life, which inspired others.
He loved his family and their dog Keyin, and in turn, he felt their love. He devoured mashed potatoes and pureed pot roast. He squealed with delight at his favorite TV shows, especially Nick Jr.’s Paw Patrol. He enjoyed thumbing through books, a muscular motion that took him a while to master. He had an ornery, mischievous streak.
His mother, Wendy Shull, recalled how he would use his left arm to wheel himself into the corner and then start yelling, as if he was stuck. When you got there to help him, pretending that you believed he really needed it, he might start trying to tickle you while he laughed at your reaction.
That feistiness, combined with his determination to fight through his health problems, brought joy to many people who cared for him.
“Ryan was always a happy, loving boy,” said his maternal grandmother, Marilyn Lee, of Mishawaka. “He brightened a lot of people’s lives. He brought a lot of happiness and love to everyone he touched.”
Ryan was just 17 months old when he first cheated death, shortly after 5 p.m. on Nov. 30, 2006.
His father, George Shull, had taken him and his 4-year-old sister, Mandy, to briefly help George’s mother put up a Christmas tree in her apartment at St. Joseph’s Tower, a senior living high-rise in downtown South Bend that’s now called Trinity Tower.
Ryan and Mandy somehow left the apartment unnoticed and Ryan slipped through the railing on a stairway balcony, falling four stories to the ground.
The family sued the development’s owner, Novi, Mich.-based Trinity Continuing Care Services, alleging the gaps between the rails were too large, allowing Ryan to fall through. The family ultimately received money in an out-of-court settlement, and used it to repay Medicaid for his medical costs, buy a home and a customized wheelchair-accessible van.
Shull had been caring for him at home until April, when she took him to Camelot Care Center, a rehabilitation and respite home for fragile children in Logansport.
He was only supposed to be there temporarily, while Shull was frequently taking Lee to Chicago for her own health reasons. With Lee now on the mend, the plan was to soon bring Ryan back home to Mishawaka.
But on Sunday, July 16, a staffer at Camelot Care Center called Shull and told her that Ryan had lost consciousness. She should come down, and have someone else driver her, she was told. When she arrived, the center’s doctor informed her that despite attempts to revive him, Ryan had died from aspirating vomit while lying in bed.
It was a possibility they were well aware of because of the neuromuscular injuries he suffered in the fall. He could only take in liquids through a gastrointestinal tube because drinking it through his mouth could allow it to enter his lungs.
Doctors had performed a Nissen fundoplication, a surgical procedure aimed at preventing the flow of acids upward from the stomach but not entirely eliminating the ability to vomit, in case he ever needed to, Shull said.
Ashley Zawadzki and Sarah Hamilton, certified nursing assistants at Camelot Care Center, drove from Logansport to attend the service. Some of their young patients die gradually, but because Ryan’s death was so sudden and unexpected, they felt like they hadn’t had the chance to say good-bye.
They recalled happy memories of Ryan as they watched a slideshow of his photos, accompanied by Sarah McLachlan’s song, “Angel.”
“I’m glad I got a chance to meet him,” Zawadzki said. “I’m glad he came to Camelot. For sure.”
“His smile was so contagious,” Hamilton said. “Even on your bad days, you’d walk in there and he’d smile and make your day completely better.”
That smile also penetrated the heart of Vickie Craker, his dietician since the accident.
“He just had the sweetest little spirit,” Craker said, “and when I would go out to call him back to get him weighed, there was something in there. If he could be a vehicle of hope for other families with children with disabilities, that would be wonderful.”
Craker said she was impressed by the care his mother gave him.
“She was one of the strongest advocates ever that I have seen,” Craker said. “It was just selfless love. She would put his needs above hers.”
Denise Wynegar, nurse manager at Memorial Hospital’s Pediatric Multi-Specialty Clinic, agreed.
“She got him out,” Wynegar said. “She took him to all different kinds of events. You see pictures of him coloring and doing crafts. She would be right there and connected with him. She would talk to him as if he did not have this disability. She’d almost translate for him. A good mom.”
During an interview on Friday, Shull alternated between telling stories about Ryan that made her laugh, such as his penchant for tossing things out of the shopping cart at Walmart, and then suddenly crying when she realized he’s gone.
“He was the light of my life,” Shull said. “He was my angel.”
Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/2uRdhSZ
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the South Bend Tribune.