Teaching kids that giving up is not an option. A kid came up to me the other day and asked me if I wore a diaper. That’s how comfortable the students are with me,” says Ryan McLean, a young woman who is confined to a wheelchair after a car crash left her permanently paralyzed. This summer, McLean travels to Delhi, India, where she has been approved for stem cell treatments. Doctors hope that by injecting embryonic stem cells into her spine over the course of two months, nerves and muscles in paralyzed areas of her 27-year-old body will regenerate. “Nine out of 10 times they (the high school students) get interested and have questions about my being in a wheelchair. It’s really intriguing to them in a lot of ways. There were 50 kids about to turn 16 and about to take their driver’s education class. They were curious about me and what had happened to me. The first questions are usually the ones about showering and getting dressed. Then they’ll ask what kind of music do you like and that sort of thing,” she says.

McLean, a teacher at Cherry Creek High School, is remarkable in so many ways. Probably the most striking aspect of her personality is her ability to reach students through her unique teaching style. “Early on, I realized it was my job to help people become comfortable. If I can show people it is OK to ask questions, it opens the door for them,” she says. Opening the door for her students is a gift she brings to teaching. In turn, students give back to her, such as the studentwho created a fund-raiser for McLean, held this Spring. The student, whom McClean coaches in swimming, lined up singers and dancers and even had a silent auction as part of the event. Ryan McLeanThe fund-raiser was important to McLean, who needs $40,000 to cover the cost of the two months of treatment. She acknowledges that the fund-raising efforts, combined with the “public stuff,” is a “test of my character.” As if McLean needs to pass such a test. As she describes in a blog, “In 1997, my snowglobe of a life was picked up, shaken violently, and set back down. The car accident was a strange twist of fate that took me from a beautifully naïve teenage athlete to something more unknown and vague. I no longer looked to the future, because I could no longer see what would be foretold. My back was broken, leaving my spinal cord damaged to an irreversible level. Although not as devastatingly permanent, injuries ranging from road rash, to collapsed lungs, to broken femurs took my attention away from what I had yet to face, my wheelchairbound future.”

RyanMcLean2The challenges didn’t stop McLean. In fact, she yearned to reach certain goals. She finished high school and pushed to be a normal college student who didn’t require special help. She strived to become independent, to work, to swim. While at college, she discovered coaching and learned it was a way to give back to students. She earned a master’s degree in education and has been teaching for three years. Students are inspired by her openness. She has discussed the stem cell treatment with them. She doesn’t know whether the treatments will be successful. “I think this is a work in progress, and if I can become a force here, that’s great. For a lot of [other] diseases, it could become a cure as much as it could for spinal cord injuries,” she explains. From her experience, McClean says she has learned a lot about the essential goodness of people. “Being in a wheelchair is a very funny life. If someone opens a door for you, it makes that person feel good. I was stubborn at first and didn’t want to be that person [needing help], but people want to help each other. A lot of times, they just want to be proud of me,” she says. Ryan McLeanIn her blog, she writes, “As I sit here in my office at 4:48 p.m. awaiting my junior varsity girls’ practice and rehashing the day, I notice and absorb both visible love and intangible love: The colored pictures and notes from my students that I have strategically placed on my wall. The four kids who just left my office after being here for an hour. One who wants to make up a quiz. One who needs to ask about her final review. One who hopes for chemistry help, although I am not her teacher, and I don’t teach chemistry. One to chat about her school day and what she has finally decided for the 84th time to be when she grows up. It has been a good day. The combination of all these things shows me that I have the power to changes lives, no matter where I sit.”

McLean remembers vividly the events on the day of the accident: “After leaving a school-sanctioned dance, I piled into a car with my friends and headed off to the bowling alley. We never made it there. The driver of the car lost control on the highway. The car flipped through the air across the median and collided with oncoming traffic, and I was projected out of the car through the side window. After arriving at the hospital, I endured over 20 hours of surgery before being placed in the intensive care unit, where I would stay for the next month.” She would be moved to another unit for three weeks, then to Craig Rehabilitation for three months. She was paralyzed from the bottom of her rib cage down. Eleven years in a wheelchair have given McLean a unique perspective. “I see things a lot clearer than I would have otherwise. I see all these things I would have taken for granted. Something inside me tells me I wouldn’t have come this far. The hospital taught me to be very patient,” she says.

Photography by STEVE GROER