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Finding a New Path Back to Work- Ryan Levins’ Story

After Ryan Levins sustained a traumatic brain injury, he didn’t know if he would be able to return to work. With help from Shepherd Center and his new yoga practice, he achieved his goal.

A National Park Service Ranger, Ryan Levins is dedicated to preserving our country’s most beautiful and historical places. So, when he sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), his goal was to get back to protecting the places he loves.

 In July 2015, Ryan laced up his shoes and mounted his bike, ready to race at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia as part of an event for the World Police and Fire Games. During the race, as he started down a hill at speeds over forty miles an hour, he was in a three-person crash, resulting in one fatality and severe injuries for Ryan and another racer. In addition to a TBI, Ryan sustained a broken collarbone, multiple broken ribs, and nerve damage in his left arm. After spending time at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus in Virginia, he transferred to Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program in August 2015.

 After graduating from the inpatient Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program in September 2015, Ryan was ready to participate in Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation program for people recovering from brain injury.

 “It was a great outcome, finding Shepherd Center,” Ryan says. “I’m very lucky. I had some of the best doctors, nurses, and therapists at Shepherd Center. I’m sure I gave them a hard time, and there were days I didn’t want to do what they were asking me to, but they never gave up on me. I have fond memories of them all.”

 With the help of his family, friends, and co-workers, he began to recover. One member of his support system was MaryJo, a friend he worked with at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. Nearly three years after his injury, Ryan and MaryJo got married.  

 In 2016, Ryan was released to work on light duty, unsure if he could pass the rigorous medical requirements required to carry a firearm and fully return to his job.

 “My therapists at Shepherd Center pushed me,” Ryan explains. “They were all tough, but they had to be in order to get me to walk again and get me back on the job. I remember writing to one of them and saying ‘You were tough, but you had a purpose to get me back to where I am today.’”

 It was a mentally and physically trying time for Ryan, and he began looking for ways to build his confidence and relieve stress, so he turned to spin biking and yoga. Ryan was inspired to try yoga by the film “The Crash Reel,” a documentary following the story of Kevin Pearce, a professional snowboarder who sustained a traumatic brain injury and found his pathway to healing. Kevin later founded the Love Your Brain Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to improve the quality of life for people affected by traumatic brain injury and raises awareness about the importance of brain health. Ryan fell in love with the practice and continues to attend yoga classes through local yoga studios.

 “Before brain injury, I would have never thought about yoga, but now I am into it,” Ryan says. “I learned about the benefits of yoga, calming the mind through meditation and mindfulness, and continued to heal as I began to work out. It really helped with my balance issues and getting back on a bike.”

 Ryan’s hard work, dedication, and yoga practice paid off. Two years after his injury, he was cleared by the National Park Service Medical Review Board and approved to return to work on full-duty status.

 “Now that was the information I had been waiting over two years to see and hear,” he says. “I certainly had a good cry after seeing that email. That was what it was all about.”

 Today, Ryan is once again chief ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, overseeing the law enforcement program for the park that sits in three states. He is also back on his bike and rides the roads around his home in Pennsylvania. He attributes his gains to his team at Shepherd Center, family, friends, and support from the National Park Service. Now, he hopes to help others during their recovery by sharing his story and advice.

Here is some of Ryan’s advice based on lessons learned on his path to recovery:

1.     Family, friend, and co-worker support is essential. My family was a rock for me. They put their lives on hold and supported me in my good and bad times. I’ve also had great support from my National Park Service family.

2.     If you have access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), use them. These programs have been helpful to me when I got down.

3.     Take advantage of support groups in your area. Talking to others with TBI and caregivers is comforting.

Shepherd Center’s Peer Support Program provides resources to patients and family members. To learn more about Shepherd Center's Peer Support Program, click here! 

4.     Wear proper safety gear for on-the-job tasks or personal recreational activities. Be prepared. In both Kevin Pearce’s and my experience, we were saved by our helmets.

5.     Learn as much about TBIs as you can, and don’t rush the process. Approach your therapy with as much positivity and resiliency as you can. Stay strong!

Written by Lindsey Rieben

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About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.