ELKHART — Thanksgiving 2012 is a little more special to Ryan Gortney.
Less than six months ago, Gortney was at South Bend’s Memorial Hospital, unsure if he would ever walk again after an accident while testing his “wheelie wagon” — a hand-crafted specialty vehicle that can reach 130 mph in a quarter-mile — at the Osceola Dragway.
“We had a catastrophic failure that locked up the rear end of the car, which made the car hop and bounce and eventually roll sideways and then end over end,” Gortney said. “I can remember seeing the initial flip and saw the concrete of the track coming towards my helmet. When I came to, the track workers were talking about cutting the car up to get me out. Obviously I didn’t know how badly the car was damaged, so I told them to just undo my belts and let me climb out.”
Gortney doesn’t remember the helicopter trip to Memorial that day and had no idea how badly he was hurt, until he saw the look in the eyes of his wife, Angee, when he arrived at the hospital.
“I could see the concern on Angee’s face,” Gortney said. “Then when the doctors came in and asked me to move my legs and I couldn’t, I knew it was bad.”
The crash fractured Gortney’s neck and back in 12 places, punctured a lung and lacerated his spleen and liver. Doctors said the vertebrae in his neck actually exploded, and bone fragments went into his vocal cords and arteries.
Even after emergency surgery in which doctors implanted a titanium rod in Gortney’s neck to replace the fractured vertebrae, the diagnosis was grim — an 85 percent chance that he would never walk again.
Gortney undergoes regular physical therapy, during which he walks with assistance. Otherwise, he gets around in a wheelchair.
“I am a man of faith and although my wife and I prayed that if it was his will that I wouldn’t walk again, so be it,’’ Gortney remembered. “But that said, I wasn’t willing to accept it either. We have prayed and worked hard and the Lord has helped get us through it to this point. We have bad moments, but not bad days.’’
Gortney would spend 12 days in the intensive care unit and 82 days at the hospital before being released to go home. One of his first stops? The Osceola Dragway, to thank everyone that has been a part of his recovery.
“I’ve been driving race cars for 24 years and I’ve had other incidents, but for whatever reason that day everything that could go wrong, did,’’ Gortney said. “But the positive thing is, everyone from the EMTs to the critical care unit, the Medevac flight, the doctors and nurses, all combined to save my life. If the doctors had not done the emergency surgery, I have no doubt I’d be a quadriplegic today.’’
One of the things Gortney was most anxious to get back to was teaching at the Elkhart Area Career Center. For the past several years, Gortney has led teams from the career center to the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge in Las Vegas and has helped his students earn $150,000 in scholarships.
“I have a real burden for these kids,’’ Gortney said. “It was one of the reasons I really wanted to get back into the classroom, even on a limited basis. I’m moving slow, but I’m there once a week and hope to add more days as I get stronger.’’
And what of the racing career that once brought Gortney national coverage and a chance to drive his wheelie wagon at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis?
“If the neurosurgeon releases me back to racing ... it’s in my blood I’ll go back,” Gortney said. “I love my wife and kids more than anything and if they say ‘we just don’t want you to do it anymore,’ then I won’t. But I know it’s in their blood as well as mine.”
Today, when Ryan, Angee and their three sons sit down for dinner, their reasons for giving thanks in 2012 will be much different than 2011.
“You really don’t realize how much you cherish life and the opportunity to raise kids until you almost have it taken away,’’ Gortney said. “It was such an eye-opening experience and it’s helped me appreciate not only my family even more, but also to not sweat the small stuff. If the lawn isn’t mowed or the leafs aren’t raked, it’s a very trivial thing in life.’’