MERIDEN — Even after a life-changing diving accident that caused him to become quadriplegic, Ryan Rosario continues to follow his passion of painting through a different strategy — using his mouth.
“Painting is kind of like everything right now,” Rosario said. “It’s the way that I can pretty much express any type of feeling that I am going through or any type of emotion. By painting, so far I have inspired a lot of other people and that’s one of my main goals … as far as painting, putting the brush in my mouth, nobody taught me how to do that.”
In 2007, when Rosario was 21, he got into a diving accident in New Haven when he dove head first off a 20-foot boardwalk into five feet of water. The accident left him paralyzed, with no movement in his hands or legs.
“It was very hard for everything,” Rosario said. “I was suffering from depression I want to say for a good five years where I did not accept who I was. Now, I’ve completely embraced being paralyzed.”
Rosario, 32, went to Gaylord Speciality Healthcare, a rehabilitation-focused health system, for about six months as an in-person patient. Gaylord specializes in traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, strokes, amputations, pulmonary rehabilitation and more.
He still goes to Gaylord every year to receive outpatient services. After feeling a sense of inspiration, he created a painting for Gaylord called “You are the Light.”
“To me, the health care workers are angels on Earth,” Rosario said. “You know, God gives them these tools for them to pretty much help us and heal us, especially right now with everything that is going on with COVID-19. They’re risking their lives every day.”
According to Rosario, “it is a complete dark world” and in his painting, the health care worker is slouched over because the worker is tired. However, God’s light is shining down on them saying that “there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“I was inspired by this painting because of everything that I have done with health care workers themselves,” Rosario said. “I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ because they’ve done so much within the past 13 years for me.”
For Rosario, Gaylord is the only place where he feels normal because everyone there also has some sort of disability.
He became a peer counselor to visit spinal cord-injured patients to help encourage them that there is life beyond their disability. Rosario would show these patients photos of his wife who he met two years after his accident and the son that he was told he would never be able to have after his accident.
“I think sometimes it’s easier to talk to somebody that’s gone through the same medical condition that you have, open up about their fears, concerns, ask questions,” said Joy Savulak, Gaylord spokeswoman. “For Ryan, it was a way to go in there and say, ‘Hey look at me. I thought however many years ago my life was over, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not the case.’”
One of Rosario’s outpatient physical therapists at Gaylord, Susan Goldstein, was impressed by “his motivation and determination during his rehab.”
She believes that his artwork will be a source of inspiration for all that are at Gaylord.
“The improvements he achieved in therapy — improved posture, increased strength, flexibility and pain reduction — not only helped him physically,” Goldstein said. “He also gained a boost in confidence, which I believe enabled him to rediscover his artistic talent. His amazing artwork and the process he uses to paint will greatly inspire patients and employees.”
For Rosario, inspiring others at Gaylord, through his artwork and by being a peer counselor, is an amazing experience.
“It’s very rewarding to hear (others’) stories of leaving Gaylord and then appreciating just me coming by and checking up on them and shining some light on them,” Rosario said. “The first couple months of your injury, you think your life is over. You don’t believe that you will have the same quality of life, you believe that you’re ugly, you’ll never have kids, you’ll never find a wife or spouse. I pretty much showed them that everything was possible.”