Ryan Clem’s Story

He was a devoted surfer, a star golfer, a handsome, popular young man from Ojai. Clem was just out of high school, two months into his freshman year of college in Santa Barbara on the night a friend had a party in the Ojai foothills. He was walking down the winding road back to his car when a drunk driver careened toward him…

Clem leaped to the side, but the car veered the same way, crashing into him. Clem’s foot got caught in the wheel well and he was dragged 100 feet before coming free. His leg was almost severed, his head was smashed and his neck was broken. He was gushing blood and convulsing at the scene. Witnesses could not imagine that he would survive.

The young student was in a coma for two and a half months before he slowly began to emerge. Deep inside the blackness, he did have some sense of self. He certainly felt pain. He remembers voices telling him not to be afraid, that he would be all right. He could feel the tubes passing inside his nose, going down into his throat. He felt constraints on his legs and his neck. His body was numb and he could not move or even open his eyes.  He tried to talk, but he could not get a sound out. It all seemed like a terrible dream.

In time, Clem could recognize familiar voices: his mother, father, his brothers, his best friends. There were equal parts of pain and confusion. They were talking to him, offering encouragement, and he wanted to respond to the people he loved. “But all of my feelings were inside my head,” Clem remembers. “I could not communicate anything with anybody. I was trapped inside myself. I felt so lonely.”

It took four months before Clem fully emerged from the coma — only to face a long, daunting battle to resume his life. He had a serious brain injury.

Helping others is a common goal among people with brain injuries. Whenever someone in his support group needs assistance, Clem is the first to step forward with an offer to help. “Why should I feel sorry for myself when maybe I can do something for someone else?” he asks. “If I possibly can, I’ll always help someone who needs it. There’s always someone worse off than you.”

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