Incredible Health

How a quadriplegic guitar player defeated the odds

Musician Ryan "Gooch" Nelson was 18 when a car accident left him paralyzed. Five years later he was diagnosed with leukemia. He shared his story to remind others that no matter what obstacles come your way life goes on


Aspiring musician Ryan "Gooch" Nelson was 18 years old when a car accident changed his life forever. After a late night out with friends in 2004, he drove into a telephone pole, sending him through the roof of his car.

"I was driving my buddy home and that’s the last thing I remember, I think I dozed off,” Gooch, 30, told “I hit my head on the top of the car and that crushed my seventh vertebra and shot fragments into my spinal cord, which caused me to have my spinal cord injury."

About 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injury occur each year and motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause.

Gooch’s injury caused paralysis in both arms and legs. Doctors told him he died three times in the helicopter as he was airlifted to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. After two weeks in a hospital, Gooch, who lives in southern New Jersey, was sent to the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia for the next six months.

"There was paralysis of some, but not all of his upper limb muscles, and total paralysis of his lower limb muscles,” Dr. Christopher Formal, Gooch’s rehabilitation doctor at Magee, told “Even basic things like eating and breathing were problematic to start with but we were confident that he would be able to master some of those problems."

With limited mobility in his hands, Gooch was devastated that he couldn’t play the guitar like he used to and struggled to find a life without music.

“I couldn’t really move my arms. I couldn’t feed myself or brush my teeth. I had a bed sore on my butt so I had to be in a bed 24/7,” Gooch said. “It was really scary because I had no idea what the future held, I had no idea if I would get any movement back at all.”

After his doctors performed spinal surgery to give his damaged nerves the best environment to recover naturally, Gooch started to make progress, using physical and occupational therapy to regain arm and lower limb strength.

Even though Gooch’s recovery period at Magee was arduous, his biggest challenge was adapting to life once he returned home.

“When you come home it’s that finality of 'OK, I’m in a wheelchair' and this is my new life. You’re trying to do things that you’re used to doing at your house that came very easy to you and it was very frustrating and caused me to have a lot of anger issues and you just deal with a lot of depression and all kinds of different feelings,” Gooch said.

Besides the physical pain he dealt with— which he described as feeling like his body was on fire— the emotional pain he lived through was just as agonizing.

“I would go out in this mobile wheelchair and I just felt like everybody was looking at me and I just felt different. I had a lot of issues with my girlfriend at the time because she would want to go out to a bar or someplace like that and I just didn’t feel comfortable, I felt like I was in the way,” Gooch said. “So you go through a lot of identity crisis… trying to find yourself. And it takes time and everything, but with a strong mindset you can easily overcome things like that.”

And overcome it he did. Armed with optimism and a strong support group of family and friends, Gooch regained enough strength in his arms and hands to learn how to play the electric guitar with a custom-made slide.

“I put it [the slide] on my thumb and just started playing on the strings and kind of messing around. I never really thought that it would amount to what it’s become today,” he said. “You know it was just like a therapeutic thing. Playing the blues with the slide has an emotional and a very vocal sound to it, so it’s a good way to get your emotions out.”

But just as Gooch was finding his voice on the guitar again, he was dealt another blow in 2009— chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a rare blood-cell cancer. Yet despite his challenges he maintained a positive outlook.

"It's terrible that I have leukemia but I'm lucky that I was able to take a medicine that put me into remission called Gleevec that I’ve been taking every day since I was diagnosed,” Gooch said.

Due to recent advances, highly effective drugs like imatinib (Gleevec) can treat many cases of CML. According to the American Cancer Society, one large study found 90 percent of CML patients were still alive 5 years after starting the drug.

"It’s about accepting what you can’t do, accepting the circumstances that you’re in and just being grateful and blessed that you have what you have."

“It’s tough because I’m on chemo drugs every single day that give me all kinds of terrible side effects, but it’s about accepting what you can’t do, accepting the circumstances that you’re in and just being grateful and blessed that you have what you have. You could be in a lot worse situations, things can always be worse,” Gooch said.

Today, Gooch continues to spread his message of optimism in his newly released debut album "Coming Home," a mix of blues-based rock produced by nine-time Grammy award-winner Joe Nicolo.

“I purposefully closed my eyes just to listen to Gooch so I would not be affected to what I visually saw, and what I heard was an act that definitely should be heard,” Nicolo told “The spotlight has to come on to an artist, so whether it’s his affliction, his personality, his voice or all of the above-- the spotlight came on.”

"I've been bruised and battered, beat up and left for dead/ I was rescued by the music living deep within my soul."

Gooch’s album brings listeners through his personal journey, touching on relationships, breakups and even outrunning death: "I've been bruised and battered, beat up and left for dead/ I was rescued by the music living deep within my soul."

The inspirational crooner wanted to pay his good fortune forward and formed the Music in Motion Foundation in late 2015 to help raise money for music therapy.

“I formed the Music in Motion Foundation just out of a necessity for there to be a way for prisons, rehab, schools and hospitals to have music therapy and have outlets for people to express themselves and really better themselves through music,” Gooch said. "I just want to keep giving back and kind of keep the good vibes going around. I'm just grateful to be alive and to move forward and I just take it day by day."

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