Cherry Hill man overcoming the odds in recovery from complete T10 paralysis

Ryan DiGiovanni was given a 1 percent chance to move the lower half of his body again after being paralyzed from the belly button down in a 2015 car accident. Just 18 months later, DiGiovanni is moving his legs once more.

Ryan DiGiovanni works on standing with only his knees blocked during therapy at Project Walk in Mt. Laurel.

On the night of Jan. 12, 2015, 18-year-old Ryan DiGiovanni was driving to a friend’s house in the Quakertown, Pa. area with his girlfriend, Kiana Alvarenga. Reaching a bridge covered in black ice, DiGiovanni lost control of his car. The vehicle went over the side of the bridge and hit a tree. DiGiovanni, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle. The car landed on top of him, severely injuring his back. Alvarenga died inside the vehicle during the crash.

Following the accident, DiGiovanni was diagnosed as a complete T10 paraplegic, meaning he had no mobility, function or sensation below the belly button. Doctors said he would only have a 1 percent chance of moving the lower half of his body again, let alone walk.

A little more than 18 months later, DiGiovanni, now a Cherry Hill resident, has already beaten the odds doctors set forth the previous year. He was able to move his legs in the pool for the first time this past winter. DiGiovanni can now move his legs from side to side, leg press, crawl and can stand with only his knees blocked.

Although DiGiovanni has already made more progress in his recovery than some other paraplegics make in their entire lives, his journey is only beginning.

Life after the accident

DiGiovanni spent eight days in the hospital after the accident. Once he was discharged he was sent to Good Shepherd Rehab Hospital in Allentown, Pa.

“They were just teaching me the basics,” DiGiovanni said. “How to dress myself, how to sit upright.”

“I was in rehab for two months before I was just barely ready to go home,” DiGiovanni added. “But we didn’t have a home that was accessible at the time so I had to be transferred to a nursing home.”

In June of 2015, DiGiovanni first met Carly Jones through a mutual friend at Jones’ workplace. When Jones met DiGiovanni, she immediately connected with him.

“Initially, Ryan and I saw him lacking the motivation to move forward,” Jones said. “I had been through that family experience. My younger sister had recently had a traumatic brain injury about two years before.”

“I just became friends with him at first,” Jones added. “We really bonded over his interest and his music and hobbies. He was the most brilliant mind I ever met. He is easily a genius in my opinion.”

Jones felt DiGiovanni had lots to offer the world and wanted to help him recover from his paralysis. However, DiGiovanni was at a low point in his life.

“At this point, my mindset was ‘My life is over. I’m never going to walk again, so why bother,’” he said. “I was going through a really dark place. Not only did I lose my legs, but I lost my girlfriend at the same time. My world just fell apart in an instant.”

Ryan DiGiovanni and Carly Jones work on a balancing exercise where DiGiovanni sits on a yoga ball.

Jones and DiGiovanni grew closer and closer as 2015 went on. They eventually began dating and Jones actively started looking for programs where DiGiovanni could make greater progress in his recovery.

“I saw Ryan plateauing in therapy,” Jones said. “He wasn’t getting what he needed. I saw him working out amongst older folks and I thought, ‘He needs more than this.’”

Eventually the pair’s research led them to Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center based in San Diego, Calif. Jones decided to apply to become a trainer for the organization.

“I applied to a position,” Jones said. “They didn’t call me back for a couple months because I wasn’t living anywhere near them.”

Jones eventually received a call back and learned Project Walk was preparing to open a facility in Mt. Laurel and was offered a position. Little did she know at the time, the new job would change the trajectory of DiGiovanni’s recovery.

Making progress at Project Walk

Jones went out to San Diego for job training prior to Project Walk’s Mt. Laurel opening in March. During training, the organization needed patients to come in for her to learn the job. Jones immediately suggested bringing DiGiovanni out to California.

DiGiovanni said his life started to change for the better.

“At this point, I discovered Buddhism,” he said. “That’s when my mindset changed. I started accepting the way things were as they were and trying to be as happy and content with everything as it was.”

Jones began to work with DiGiovanni at Project Walk’s headquarters in San Diego last winter. During this time, DiGiovanni did something doctors said he was highly unlikely to ever do.

“We were in the pool for the first time,” DiGiovanni said. “We were sitting in there just doing stuff, and all of a sudden my leg moved under the water.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” he added. “I made a video and sent it to my family and everything.”

This step gave DiGiovanni hope and motivation to continue moving forward. DiGiovanni and Jones returned to the Philadelphia area after Jones completed Project Walk’s certification program. The two moved to Cherry Hill together just minutes from Project Walk in Mt. Laurel.

DiGiovanni visits Project Walk three times per week. Much of his therapy regimen focuses on remembering how to use the lower half of his body. Unlike other rehab facilities focusing on building up the muscles, DiGiovanni performs routines focused on the nervous system and remembering how to use his legs.

“Every little accomplishment we put up on the board,” DiGiovanni said, referring to a giant chalkboard inside the facility. “The other day, I stood for 35 minutes without being held. Every little step on the way is awesome.”

Jones said DiGiovanni’s progress has been remarkable considering where he was just one year ago.

“I honestly didn’t think I’d be here at this point,” Jones said. “Ryan was so down, I thought he was going to deteriorate. For him to be here and to be prospering is just mind-boggling to me.”

DiGiovanni is determined to continue therapy and learn how to stand on his own and walk again. However, he needs some community support to make it happen.

Moving forward in therapy and life

Project Walk’s therapy is not covered through health insurance. This means DiGiovanni has had to find ways to cover the cost of his therapy out of pocket. With a single hour of therapy at Project Walk costing $110, DiGiovanni is looking for help to continue his recovery.

To help pay for his recovery, DiGiovanni received a $4,000 grant from the Chanda Plan Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving the life of people with physical disabilities.

“(Carly) bills to the grant,” DiGiovanni said. “But it’s only $4,000. We have to make that stretch.”

DiGiovanni and Jones also started a GoFundMe in June called Ryan’s Recovery Fund. Donors are welcome to send money to DiGiovanni to help pay for his therapy and medical expenses. The page is full of information on DiGiovanni’s recovery. Pictures and stories showcase the progress DiGiovanni has made in the last few months.

Photo update from Ryan DiGiovanni’s GoFundMe page showing DiGiovanni using the electrical stimulation bike at Project Walk.

“It’s bringing more people involved in the path of recovery,” DiGiovanni said. “I do every update on there. I was able to swim in the pool, completely move my legs every day. People enjoy watching because they feel like they’re a part of my recovery.”

Outside of therapy, DiGiovanni is a different person. He tries to serve as a mentor to fellow patients at Project Walk and other paraplegics with the hope they won’t travel down the same dark path he embarked on in 2015.

“I want to guide other people away from that,” DiGiovanni said. “I liken it to if we were exploring a darkened cave. I already explored that cave and discovered it’s a dead end. I can go back and tell everyone else you don’t have to go that way, that there’s another way.”

DiGiovanni, an acoustic musician for a number of years, is also diving back into music for the first time since his accident. He is working on an album to release on iTunes and said the lyrics talk about his journey from the accident to his recovery now.

DiGiovanni added he and Jones hope to start their own nonprofit in the future to make resources easier to find for people with physical disabilities.

“We’re working on a 501c nonprofit right now,” DiGiovanni said. “We want to make a foundation that consolidates all of the resources. There’s plenty of great things out there, like Project Walk and mobility stuff. But if you don’t know where to go, you won’t know anything.”

For a time following the accident last year, DiGiovanni was convinced his life was all but over.

Now, DiGiovanni realizes his life is really just beginning.

To donate toward Ryan’s Recovery Fund and read more about his journey, visit www.gofundme.com/ryandigi.