Ryan Riggs worked on a construction site last fall, hauling lumber and uprooting old fenceposts, when he started to lose feeling in his right leg.
Assuming he’d hurt his back somehow—maybe a ruptured or slipped disk, he thought—he took it easy that weekend and gave himself time to recover.
But rather than improving, the leg got worse. It wouldn’t cooperate. For the next few weeks, he had to practically drag it along by hand.
“It was acting like a peg leg,” he said. Soon his left leg started acting up, too. It began to feel numb.
Ryan, 33, felt determined to go to work each day, but soon his boss told him he’d be better off staying home. Ever the optimist, Ryan took a break and waited to bounce back.
A week later, at Halloween, he found himself too disabled to take his 9-year-old daughter trick-or-treating.
No longer able to walk, he took to scooting around the house on his bottom, relying on upper-body strength to propel himself backwards.
His wife, Kathryn, repeatedly urged him to go to the doctor, but he resisted.
“Everything’s going to be OK,” he said.
He now readily admits: That had been an “ignorant” attitude.
Fear of bad news
As the weeks became months, Ryan’s optimism turned to obstinacy and then fear.
“I was scared to go to the hospital and find out what it really was—because, you know, it could have been cancer, it could have been anything,” he said.
Underlying all of this were financial concerns. The family didn’t have medical insurance.
“I think that was a lot of it—besides not wanting bad news,” Kathryn said. “He didn’t want to strap us with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt that we would never be able to manage.”
Things went from bad to worse. When Ryan became incontinent, Kathryn reached her limit. Out of patience. Out of options.
On a rainy February day, she pulled her car up to the front steps of their home in Lowell, Michigan, and helped hoist Ryan into the vehicle. She drove him directly to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
Emergency room doctors ran tests, including an MRI with contrast.
They soon discovered the source of his symptoms: a golf ball-size tumor in the mid-section of his spine.
The ER contacted the neurosurgeon on call that night, Justin Singer, MD. When he met Ryan and grasped the severity of the situation—neurological injury resulting in paralysis—he recommended surgery to remove the tumor the very next day.
“I said to him, ‘Listen, … I’m not sure what I can reverse, but this is very urgent to me. You’re a 33-year-old guy and the sooner I get your nerves decompressed, the better off you’ll be. I think we need to do this—now,’” Dr. Singer said.
The hospital’s social work staff secured approval for emergency Medicaid to cover the surgery, recovery and rehabilitation.
Fearing Ryan’s nerves might not rebound after so many weeks of compression, Dr. Singer entered the operating room feeling “cautiously pessimistic.”
But he knew he had to give Ryan a chance at mobility. The alternative—life in a wheelchair from here on out—would result in medical complications and a shortened life expectancy.
“Oftentimes young people are very resilient. You have to give them a shot,” Dr. Singer said.
The surgery involved removing two sections of bone from Ryan’s vertebrae and opening up the dura, the spinal cord’s protective membrane, to expose the cord itself.
He immediately saw that the tumor was compressing the nerves on the left side of the spinal canal.
With help from a physician assistant, Olivia Rivera, PA-C, Dr. Singer carefully freed the mass from its surroundings, removing as much of it as possible and burning the neighboring cells to thwart regrowth.
He sewed the dura back together and reattached the bones.
After the surgery, two questions remained: Was Ryan’s neurological damage permanent and was the tumor cancerous?
The first question was answered within 24 hours. When Dr. Singer visited Ryan the next day, he was stunned to see his patient lift both legs off the bed.
This is “what’s really most remarkable about his story,” Dr. Singer said.
“Once I knew that, I knew that his long-term prognosis overall was very favorable. With rehab and him working very, very hard—that he would be mobile again.”
For Ryan, that’s the day he got his life back.
“Right then we knew we could have our family back,” Ryan said. “We could be back to the way it was. My life was saved—that’s all I could think.
“Because without it, I’d have been in a home,” he said. “I’d have been in an assisted living home. I couldn’t do anything for myself.”
The malignancy question took longer to answer.
Ryan and his family waited six anxious days for biopsy results. But when they came back, the news was good. The tumor, a meningioma, was classified as the most benign type possible. It wouldn’t require radiation or other treatments—only regular surveillance, because it could come back.
After 10 days at Butterworth Hospital, Ryan transferred to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. Working with physical and occupational therapists, he pushed himself to regain muscle memory and muscle tone so he could learn to walk again.
Today, back at home, he uses a walker and relentlessly works on building strength in both legs.
“It’s getting better every single day,” he said. “Every milestone you get just gives you that much more hope for the future.”
Ryan’s goal is to abandon the walker and move to a cane, with the hope that he’ll eventually walk without assistance. He has his sights set on getting back to work, helping his wife with her cleaning business.
He’s motivated by a desire to reclaim the life he lost when his legs were out of commission.
“Knowing how much I put my family through, I know what I have to do now,” he said. “Justin Singer gave me a different life, got me out of that. And now I have to work hard to stay that way.”
Ryan and Kathryn shudder to think how close they came to telling a different story. The tumor might have been cancerous. The nerve damage might have been permanent. Ryan might not have walked again.
“We were lucky—really lucky—that with all the delay the outcomes were so positive,” Kathryn said.
Ryan has learned some big lessons about listening to those around him and being willing to seek help.
“If you’re hurt, just go get the help,” he said. “Go to your doctor, go to the ER. Don’t be like me.