University of Cincinnati graduate reunited with grade-school classmate after being paralyzed
Steve Hirschberg, WCPO Contributor
MONTGOMERY, Ohio — Stephanie Perry and Ryan Atkins look at their second-grade scrapbook as prophetic.
On one page of the book from 1996 is Perry’s answer to a teacher’s question about what she had learned about the Bible and following Jesus.
Eight-year-old Stephanie had scrawled: “I learned that God did many miricals (sic). I like the one of the parelized (sic) man the most.”
On another page was a photo of little Stephanie and Ryan standing side by side.
Thirteen years later, the pair had grown up and gone their separate ways. But a devastating injury to Atkins and an offer of help from Perry reunited them as young adults and eventually led to romance.
In 2009, Atkins was a 21-year-old junior at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl Lindner School of Business. He was on a full scholarship, had a high-paying internship and was on track to what he envisioned would be a lucrative career. But on Nov. 20, 2009, Atkins wrecked his SUV while driving on Interstate 75 in southern Kentucky. The crash left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
First responders airlifted Atkins to a University of Kentucky trauma center in Lexington, where he spent two weeks in intensive care. After that it was two months at the Drake Center, a long-term acute care hospital in Cincinnati, and another two months in Atlanta at the Shepherd Center, which specializes in treating spinal cord injuries.
Then he was brought to his parents’ home in Montgomery, where he still lives.
At the time, Perry was studying to become a medical massage therapist. When she read on Facebook about the debilitating injury to her childhood classmate, she contacted Atkins and volunteered to give him therapeutic massages several times a week.
Over the course of several years, Perry’s massage sessions with Atkins evolved into a close friendship. The two began dating and gradually fell in love.
Perry said their common religious faith was a major factor in the romance, but not the only one.
“He’s very personable," Perry said. “He’s very genuine…I feel he just treats everyone around him with respect and kindness. I was attracted to the peace I saw about him. He saw his whole world turned upside down and just took it in stride.”
Atkins, who needs to be hoisted from his bed into a motorized wheelchair in order to move around, began speaking to students from his alma mater, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy. He also began mentoring a group of teens and set up his own website: www.FlatOnMyBack.com.
Atkins employs voice-activated software because he can’t use his hands to type. He expected his website to be a way of connecting with family and friends. But he soon learned that it could help him share feelings and stories online with others who had suffered serious injuries. The website, which includes a personal blog, opened doors to speaking opportunities.
While he is making little physical progress, the now 27-year-old Atkins achieved two milestones last year.
In December, after completing his studies online, Atkins finally graduated from UC with a degree in business administration.
And during the summer, he proposed to Perry and she accepted. They will be married Nov. 19 — the evening before the seventh anniversary of the car wreck that changed Ryan Atkins’ life in so many ways.
Atkins still hopes to overcome his paralysis. “I believe I will have that opportunity and regain my physical body and I’ll be able to move my arms and legs and dance with my beautiful soon-to-be wife,” he said.