By Susan Gallagher
In the beginning, the prognosis was grim: Ryan O’Connor would never breathe on his own or talk or walk or understand anything said to him—that is, if he survived five hours of emergency surgery.
The then 44-year-old Arnold, MO, police officer had been shot in the head by a burglary suspect on Dec. 5, 2017. Ryan was rushed into surgery where a large portion of his scull was removed. Through the first of five surgeries, an induced coma that lasted nearly a month, a near-death brush with swelling in his brain, sepsis and kidney failure. Ryan fought for his life—bolstered by his four sons and courageous wife Barbara.
“I told the doctor I would take him anyway I could get him,” Barbara recalled when she heard the initial prognosis. “Through it all, we remained so grateful for the blood Ryan received during all the surgeries. That’s why it was important to him that he become a blood donor.”
That he did. On Jan. 25, 2021, Ryan O’Connor, now age 47, walked into the High Ridge (Missouri) Fire Protection District Blood Drive and amiably chatted with the biomedical team.
Not only is giving blood important to Ryan, but it also helps lower his hemoglobin levels, which are high due to the testosterone he must take because of his injury. High hemoglobin levels cause the body to make too many red blood cells, causing the blood to be thicker than usual and leading to blood clots, heart attacks and strokes.
To facilitate the visit, Ryan’s sister, Karla Templeton, Red Cross Disaster Program Specialist in St. Louis, contacted Mollie Tinnin, Environmental Health & Safety Program Manager for four Red Cross regions. Karla wanted to see if Mollie could find a way to help Ryan get up on the elevated donation bed since Ryan could not lift himself up.
A safety engineer, Mollie has long been interested in hosting even more community inclusive blood drives and in partnering with fire districts to help transfer donors who would not otherwise get to donate to donation beds. She and her husband---both emergency medical technicians---came to High Ridge on Jan. 25 to transfer Ryan to the three-foot-high bed.
“I could tell Ryan was pleased to become a donor,” Mollie said. “As someone who has had a traumatic experience, I can tell you that it is a very powerful to have the opportunity to give back to the community—to give blood---something you were given when you needed it most. You are really empowered by that experience.”
Barbara O’Connor agrees, adding that Ryan had spent 20 years dedicated to protecting people. He missed giving back to the community. Both Ryan’s father and grandfather served as police chiefs in the St. Louis region. Ryan’s father was the only U.S.-born son of the eight—the other seven children came with Ryan’s grandparents to St. Louis from Ireland. Barbara is also a native St. Louisan from a family of firefighters.
After the shooting, it took nearly three years for the O’Connor family to return to the area. They spent two years in Denver so Ryan could go through treatment at Craig Hospital---an Englewood, Colorado, institution specializing in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and research.
“Craig Hospital provides speech and physical therapy in addition to addressing neuropsychology and medical needs,” Barbara said. “They were so amazing in that the staff even helped us navigate going out to eat at a restaurant.” The family also spent months in Tampa, Florida, where through a hospital speech program, Ryan worked on conquering his aphasia.
Through it all, the O’Connor family stayed together. “My sons (now age 7, 9, 14 and 20) showed great resilience as they adapted to new schools and made new friends. They were always part of his therapies, and they learned, as I did, to step back and give Ryan the tools to conquer the next steps toward doing everything he could independently. The boys played a significant role in Ryan’s great progress.”
Now, Ryan talks, feeds himself and understands conversations. “The doctors told me that it’s likely his personality would change and that he would never be his old self. He was a prankster and very witty,” Barbara said. “But Ryan remains the wonderful, funny man I married. Ryan is so independent in so many areas of his life.”
Still, there were many times when it seemed the story would turn out very differently. “I remember when the doctors told me his kidneys had shut down, and all they could do was try dialysis—something they did for three days. Miraculously, his kidneys began to function again, and the astonished doctor turned to me and said, ‘I think this is the toughest guy I’ve ever seen.’”
The U.S. Blood supply has dropped to critically low levels during the pandemic. That’s why giving blood is more important now than ever. Every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood. About 38 percent of the total population can actually donate blood, but only 10 percent give blood. If everyone who could donate blood gave, thousands of lives could be saved. To schedule an appointment to donate now, use the free Red Cross Blood Donor App, or call 1-800-RED CROSS.