ELKHART — Like all good teachers, Ryan Gortney has a tremendous heart for his students.
That fact is proven each day in the amount of work Gortney does just to get to the Elkhart Area Career Center for the start of school.
“I get up at 5 a.m. every day and go to the gym for two hours of therapy so I can get to school by 7:30 to start class,” Gortney said. “I get off at 3:30, go home to grade papers and relax to try and get revamped for the next day.”
Gortney was seriously injured on June 3, 2012, when he crashed while testing his “wheelie wagon” — a hand-crafted specialty vehicle that can reach 130 mph in a quarter-mile — at the Osceola Dragway.
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 with a titanium rod in his neck, doctors gave Gortney less than a 15 percent chance of ever walking again.
Gortney has already beaten those odds, thanks to a strong belief in God and the tough rehab work he’s been going through.
“It really seems like it’s just a blink of an eye since the crash happened, but here we are 15 months later,” Gortney said. “I’m working hard to get to the point where I can walk totally unassisted, no cane, no walker and definitely no wheelchair.”
As part of his rehab, Gortney uses the swimming pool at Elkhart Memorial High School two days a week to help him regain his mobility. Doctors say the resistance and weightlessness the water provides will help tighten his muscles and help him regain the mobility he has lost.
“Right now, I use a cane about 30 percent of the time, a walker 30 percent and a wheelchair about 40 percent,” Gortney said. “Obviously, I can’t walk very fast, so if I need quick mobility or if I’m fatigued, I’ll use the chair.
“I can’t say enough about how great the Elkhart school system has been through our entire ordeal. Not only did they wait for me to get stronger, but they’ve allowed me to do a lot of rehab at their facilities.”
Last May, while still in the early stages of his rehab, Gortney helped coach two teams in the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow program at the Career Center. Incredibly, both teams are among 24 that qualified for the national finals, which will be held at the Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis in December.
The teams — which includes Gortney’s son, Lane, this year — have always been close to Gortney’s heart, so the extra work will still be welcome.
“It is great to be back in the classroom, but if our teams do well at the national level, there is a chance for each kid to win $10,000 in scholarship money and that can be instrumental in kids’ success,” Gortney said. “It could give them the opportunity to continue with their education at a tech school or a college and help them have an even better future.
“The fact that I have Lane in my class and on the teams has been an awesome experience. I’m not only proud as a teacher, but also as a father.”
Gortney, a devout Christian, gives his family a lot of credit for helping overcome the terrible odds he once faced. In addition to Lane, there is Ryan Jr., a sophomore track and field specialist at Indiana State and younger son Ty as well as his wife, Angee.
“My family, church family and school family have just been phenomenal, it’s been a win-win-win through everything I’ve faced,” Gortney said. “I could not have asked for more.
“My wife ... has been tremendous. We took our vows saying for better or for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health and we’ve faced every one of those in the past 15 months and here we are going through life as an active couple again. It would have been easy for her to just say ‘it’s too tough’ and just hit the bricks. But she took her vows seriously.
“I hope and pray couples don’t have to go what we’ve been through, but when you look at how we’ve been able to overcome things already, I hope we can be an encouragement to others.”