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Mental toughness and technology unite to keep paralyzed farmer on his land

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During much of 2006, Dawn Frye did everything she could to motivate her 19-year-old son, Ryan. He would spend hours on the couch. Dreary days were the worst — the gloom of the outdoors amplified Ryan’s depression. It was a chore to get him to go for a ride in the truck or to grab an ice cream cone. Other family members — grandparents, aunts — tried as well. Sometimes, as Dawn told her son, “You just need to go out and get the stink blown off you.”

A Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game helped lift his spirits some. A rare smile emerged from Ryan one night when the family was having a campfire and his sister jokingly smashed a smore in his face (he was quick to affectionately retaliate).

Life wasn’t easy before that year. In addition to working on the family dairy operation near Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Dawn had a full-time job. Her husband worked long hours running the farm full time. The farm needed Ryan, and, while he may not have realized it at the time, he needed the farm.

“I kept telling Ryan, ‘There’s nothing you can’t do. You just have to find a little bit different way of doing it,’” Dawn said.

In the months after Ryan lost the use of his legs in an ATV accident, doing things differently was going to define the rest of his life.

A foggy future

The day that changed Ryan’s life happened in May 2006, a year after he finished high school. Dusk had arrived after a full day of working on the farm, and he went ATV riding with friends. Low-light conditions and riding in an unfamiliar area contributed to the accident, which found Ryan and his vehicle careening off of a 40-foot embankment.

“That landed me here,” Ryan said today. He was paralyzed from the waist down, with a life of uncertainty and newfound struggle ahead of him.

“I was kind of numb at the beginning,” Ryan’s mom said, reflecting back. “So many things were happening at one time that you don’t really get a grip on it until it was all over, and you find yourself second-guessing decisions you’ve made.”

Difficulties with the insurance companies complicated things, leaving the Frye family feeling isolated in getting Ryan the treatment, rehabilitation, and services that he needed. Ryan’s depression set in, and his mom struggled with it, too. Many friends were lost along the way.

Those first few months saw more down days than not. Prior to the accident, Ryan was the kind of person who would be on the move seven days a week — laying around wasn’t his thing. After the accident, he weighed his limitations and wasn’t sure how he felt about getting back into farming.

“Your whole life changes — from everything you knew then to now all of sudden, you have to figure everything out again,” Ryan said.

Ryan has long been good with his hands, even spending part of his teen years working in construction. And it was from there that his rehabilitation took off — and his outlook on the future changed. Sitting on the sidelines was to become something of the past.

“My buddies soon learned not to tell me I couldn’t do something because I would find a way to do it,” Ryan said.

Image courtesy of Ryan Frye

The young farmer created his own hand controls for the family’s tractors and devised ways of getting in and out of the machines. When barns were built on his property, they were set up in a way to make it easier for him to work, such as with getting in and out of the skid loader.

“Farming gave me something to look forward to day to day,” he said.

“After I saw the hand controls that he and his buddies made, I said, ‘See, you amaze me. You can make something out of nothing,’” Dawn said of her son. “That’s the way he’s always been.”

Adding that same type of hand controls to his truck and renewing his license are perhaps what helped to guide this second phase of his life the most. He discovered freedom that he never imagined possible in the months immediately after his accident. In many ways, he had his life back.

Growing mobility

The Frye family began shipping milk from their dairy operation in 1978, and the current farm was bought in 1982, five years before Ryan was born. With about 100 cows, it was a sustainable operation for much of the next three decades, but as other Pennsylvania dairies got bigger, the Fryes (Ryan, his father, and grandfather) struggled more and more financially.

The decision was made to transition to beef and grain farming, a move that began in October 2016 and is near completion. Currently, the Frye’s own 250 acres across the three generations of families and have upwards of 600 acres of rented cropland.

The family has four tractors plus a combine, and despite the innovative measures Ryan took to be more mobile, it was easy to become injured and was frustrating to rely on family members so much.

“I’m not a little guy,” he said. “I would pull my UTV next to the tractor and hop in that way. It was all shoulders and arms. Other times, my mom, who’s a 140-pound woman, would throw me over her shoulder.”

Sometimes her knee would give out and together they’d fall. It was not only difficult, but it was a safety concern, something that Ryan sought to remedy. He began to research his options online, and it was there he found Pennsylvania’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helped to connect him with a program called AgrAbility in 2015.

Consider his life redefined once more.

At an event at Penn State, Ryan met with representatives of Life Essentials, a company that installs chair lifts into vehicles, and with the makers of Action TrackChair. He saw what they had first-hand and got to test the equipment on site.

“The first time I visited Ryan in person, I was completely impressed and blown away with what he was already accomplishing on his farm,” said Abbie Spackman, a project assistant for AgrAbilty PA and Ryan’s key point of contact with the program. “But I could also tell that he didn’t have the independence he wanted.”

AgrAbility, which has offices in 22 states and is based out of Purdue University, connects clients with disabilities with services and technology that can be beneficial. AgrAbility offices also help secure funding for those in need, on average connecting clients with enough money to cover about 70 percent of costs. Spackman, in her role, visits clients, makes recommendations on the technology that they need, and links them to resources and other groups who could help.

In talking with Ryan and poring over options, Spackman and her client saw the potential in a truck-mounted chair lift that would allow Ryan to move from one tractor to another easily. They also planned on the off-road TrackChair that would move shorter distances and allow him to stand up to do work in the shop. Ryan said that AgrAbility helped him find funding to cover almost the entire cost of the technology — allowing him to keep farming.

Ryan calls himself a determined and stubborn guy who continued to seek out more and more freedom despite the gains he had already made in the years since the ATV crash. Even under typical circumstances, frustration and difficulty define the agricultural industry.

“If you love what you do,” Ryan said, “you just keep on doing it, through the lows and the highs.”

Ryan clearly loves farming.

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