National Easter Seals spokesman won't let anything get him down

LITTLE ROCK, Iowa -- Ryan Odens has two goals this year -- to travel to every state in the U.S., and to coax farm implement manufacturer John Deere into becoming a corporate sponsor for Easter Seals.

LITTLE ROCK, Iowa -- Ryan Odens has two goals this year -- to travel to every state in the U.S., and to coax farm implement manufacturer John Deere into becoming a corporate sponsor for Easter Seals.

Those goals may sound lofty to most, but are especially so for Odens, who nearly six years ago suffered injuries so severe he was told by doctors numerous times he would never walk again.

If there's one thing this 29-year-old farmer from Little Rock has learned, it's that one should never say never.

That message will travel with Odens throughout this year as he fulfills his role as the 2006 Adult Representative of Easter Seals. Odens is the first individual from Iowa -- and the first-ever farmer -- to serve as the organization's national spokesperson.

Odens' connection with Easter Seals began in late 2000. On Aug. 11 of that year, a Friday night, Odens was driving the back roads of Rock County when he was involved in a rollover crash.


"I don't remember anything about what happened," he said.

Based on information collected at the crash site, Odens had apparently hit the shoulder of the road while maneuvering around a curve. He over-corrected, which led to a right rear tire blow-out.

"I barrel-rolled and rolled end for end, and was ejected from the vehicle," he added.

Odens spent the next month at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., where doctors gave his friends and family the devastating news. He had fractured the top five vertebra in his neck, both wrists were broken, his shoulder was hyper-extended and he suffered a spinal cord injury at T-3 and T-4 in his back. They were certain he would never walk again.

On the Monday morning following the accident, Odens was wheeled into the operating room for his one and only surgery. Doctors put pins in his wrist, titanium rods in his back and took some bone from his hip to replace the shattered vertebra in his spine. While the spinal cord remained intact, the severity of the bruising led doctors to believe Odens would be a quadriplegic.

"Basically everything I could move was in a cast or brace, and everything else was paralyzed," he said.

Odens' doctors chose not to tell him he was a quadriplegic. Instead, they told his mother, Joleen, that her son would have to learn that information on his own.

Weeks after the crash, Odens learned the truth -- not on his own, but from a nurse tasked with his care.


"I was going to get up to get a glass of water and the nurse came in and said, 'What are you doing?'" he recalled. "I told her I was thirsty and was going to get some water, and she told me I couldn't, that I was paralyzed."

Road to recovery

Based on Odens' age and the extent of his injuries, he was accepted into a rehabilitation program at Denver, Colo.-based Craig Hospital. The facility works with patients who have suffered a brain or spinal cord injury.

"They only take people they think they can help," Odens said.

Colorado residents have first priority in getting into the facility, followed by patients who are young.

Hoping the physical therapy he would receive in Denver would help him regain the use of legs, Odens quickly learned otherwise. On his first day there, doctors again told him there was no chance he'd walk again.

Their plan for Odens was to complete a training regimen so he could adjust to life in a wheelchair and develop skills to reenter the workforce. Farming -- growing crops and raising cattle -- just wasn't something a quadriplegic could do.

Shortly after his arrival in Denver, Odens regained movement in his inner thigh.


"It's very common for them to come back first," he said.

Odens believed the movement to be a sign that he would one day walk again, but still, the doctors wouldn't listen. They didn't want to do physical therapy on Odens' legs, so when he was back to his room at night, he did the leg therapy with his mother's help.

On Nov. 21, 2000, the anniversary of his father's death, Odens took his first steps since the crash while standing in a warm-water therapy pool at Craig Hospital.

"I walked along the edge of the pool," he said. "Mom got tears in her eyes."

At that point, doctors realized Odens' determination. Odens, on the other hand, said simply that it was a miracle.

Odens and his mother returned home to Little Rock on Dec. 23 with a wheelchair and the information of an organization that could provide assistance to make his life a little easier -- Easter Seals.

Return to the farm

Throughout the recovery process, Odens never once thought about a career other than farming. Tilling the soil and tending to livestock are his passion -- it takes just a glance at the John Deere pictures and scale-model tractors in his "bachelor pad" to know he bleeds green.


Farming is more than a career for Odens, though -- it's fulfilling a dream his father had for his sons. The trio had long dreamed of farming together, but that dream was cut short when Odens and his brother, Nick, lost their dad, Rodney, to a massive heart attack seven years ago.

Odens wasn't going to let his disabilities interfere with that dream, and it was Easter Seals that made it happen.

Easter Seals is a non-profit organization that helps people who are disabled or who become disabled. Through fund-raising efforts, Easter Seals helps provide equipment to individuals so they can return to the workforce. They also assist with respite care for parents of children with disabilities, and provide physical and occupational therapy programs.

"If they can help you, they will," Odens said.

In Iowa, the Easter Seals organization works closely with the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IVRS) and, in Odens' case, it also worked with the AgrAbility Project.

For Odens to return to farming, several projects needed to be completed to allow him to do his job.

Together, the entities worked to fit Odens' combine with a lift to help him in and out of the cab, a John Deere Gator to give him "some legs" to get around the farm yard, electric gate openers to get into the cattle yards without having to leave the tractor cab, a remote starter for the pickup and an electric tarp opener for the semi-trailer, which is used in the brothers' farming operation and small custom grain-hauling business.

In addition, they helped cover the cost of cement and supplies for the machine shed to be cemented, as Odens does most of the mechanical work on the family's farm implements. Labor to complete the job was volunteered by friends and family members.


"In Iowa, friends and neighbors are used as often as possible to save money through Easter Seals," he added.

His dad's best friend, Steve Rosenboom, designed and manufactured a lift for Odens' four-wheel-drive John Deere tractor.

"With Easter Seals, it's not all stuff that you want -- you can't make out a wish list. They provide what they think you need to get you back in the workforce -- otherwise, I would have asked for a new tractor or something," he said with a laugh.

Odens and his brother farm 1,100 acres of mostly corn and soybeans and have a 30-head Black Angus cow-calf operation. Today, Odens manages with the use of a cane. With the exception of places like the mall, where he would be expected to do a lot of walking, Odens hasn't used his wheelchair for about three years. His goal, one day, is to be able to walk without the aid of a cane.

Throughout this next year, Odens will share his story many times over of how Easter Seals helped him. He developed a motto that he will share with state Easter Seal chapters, corporate sponsors and anyone else who wants to listen -- "If you have the will, Easter Seals is the way."

"I could have gotten things done without Easter Seals, but they just made it easier," said Odens. "They made my dream of farming come true."

Since becoming the national Easter Seals adult spokesman, Odens has traveled to Washington, where he spoke on Capitol Hill about the need to preserve and protect Medicaid, and to Vermont, the site of the National AgrAbility Convention. Later this spring, he may have the opportunity to meet President George W. Bush.

Upcoming speaking engagements are planned in Illinois, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee and New York. He also will speak at conventions in Las Vegas three times this year.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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