A car accident. Bending over to pick up a child while she was seven months pregnant. Kissing a child goodbye. These three events lead to LauraBeth Ryan spending 10 years mostly confined to her bed.
She had almost given up hope that she would walk again when a move to the Austin area led to finding doctors who had new ideas on how to treat her spinal condition and help her become mobile again.
Throughout her time being what she calls “bedfast,” she became a life coach, motivational speaker and writer and started a greeting card and gift company, Cheerful Hearts, that uses her poetry along with biblical verses to give messages of hope and encouragement.
Cheerful Hearts comes from Proverbs 17:22: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
That’s what Ryan tries to do: Deliver good medicine in the form of inspiration.
10 years in bed
Ryan, 48, grew up in Maryland with a family that wasn’t particularly religious. When she was 17, her older sister, Lisa Butler, brought her to a church she had been attending. Ryan began attending regularly and became a Christian.
When she was 18, she was in a car accident that injured her back. While recovering from that, she met her first husband. They got married and she had four sons by age 28. Ryan has always been small in stature and her boys were big babies. Each baby put more strain on the nerves and ligaments in her already-damaged back. This affected the stability of her core and her ability to stand, sit or walk without pain.
When her youngest was 2, she bent over to kiss one of her sons goodbye at school. Suddenly, she could no longer walk.
Because the damage was so low in her back, doctors didn’t think they could operate or do much for her. She spent her days parenting her sons from her bed and looking for hope.
She tried expensive prolotherapy in Chicago, which helped her move better in water but did not make her functional. She went to Florida for a new surgery, but that didn’t work and even seemed to make the problem worse.
She went deeper into depression. It seemed this would be how she would live her life.
Five years after trying to pick up her son, the prognosis was bleak. She came to a place of acceptance and tried to live each day with a cheerful heart from her second-story bedroom.
A friend, Mely Ocampo, would visit and bring food and watch Ryan still be a mother to her boys from her bed. “Regardless of what she’s been through, she’s always cheerful,” Ocampo says. “She’s been there for us, maybe not physically, but there emotionally.”
She started working with life coach Trish Robichaud, who has multiple sclerosis. “When I met Laura, she was still raising those boys from the couch in a horizontal position,” Robichaud says. “It blew my mind.”
Together they worked on what she could do and how to improve what she could control and not worry about what she couldn’t. “When you have a chronic illness, it’s like you’re wearing a big, heavy, wet blanket you can’t get out from under,” Robichaud says.
Ryan had always been creative and turned to writing poetry, taking inspiration from the Bible. She partnered with an illustrator and launched Cheerful Hearts in 2006 with a grand opening party.
“Laura is one of those people who will always been in my life, even if we only talk once a year,” Robichaud says. “She made a huge impression on me.”
Ten years in bed took a toll on her marriage, and over Thanksgiving 2008, her mom visited and brought Ryan back to live with her two sisters, Lisa Butler and Carey Chaudior in Austin.
Finding new hope in Austin
Her family did not understand how bad her health was when they brought her to Austin. Ryan would spend three to four weeks with Butler and then three to four weeks with Chaudior. They had to do everything for her. They thought she would stay only until Christmas, but then it became clear Ryan needed more medical attention.
Before coming to Texas, Ryan had spoken to a pain management specialist about a spinal cord simulator implant, which might help her walk again. Once they found a neurosurgeon in Texas, she got a sacral nerve block to test whether an implant might work. She arrived by wheelchair, but after the block was able to walk out of the office. She felt so good, she made her sister take her to walk across the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin.
“It gave us all hope that she might be able to walk again,” Lisa Butler says.
After getting the simulator, Ryan did water therapy and learned how to walk, stand and sit correctly again. She still has pain flare-ups, and she has nerve ablations every six months to keep her mobile.
Once she was more mobile and her sisters helped her find an apartment, it was time to get Cheerful Hearts up and running. She sought help from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services to start the process to receive Vocational Rehabilitative Services. Those services are available to anyone with a physical or mental disability. Caseworkers create an individual plan for employment for clients.
Ryan’s plan was a bit different in that it involved becoming self-employed. Her plan included having an assistant to help her with the physical activities of starting a business — as well as getting her in touch with business coach Celia Bell through SCORE Austin, which works with entrepreneurs to start their own business.
Ryan was different than some of Bell’s other clients because they didn’t meet face to face for a long time because of Ryan’s health. Instead, they worked through phone calls, Skype and email to form a business plan and redo the Cheerful Hearts website. Bell would give her suggestions and an action plan to complete by the next time they talked. Sometimes Ryan would have to drop out for a while when there were health concerns, but she stayed with it.
Bell, who has been advising entrepreneurs with SCORE for 12 years, says she has never worked with someone who overcame as many challenges as Ryan. “She’s very persistent,” Bell says. “Other people complain that they can’t get something done and then you talk to LauraBeth and you wonder why.”
In addition to the cards with her poetry, Ryan sells prints and bookmarks. She sends out a regular Cheer Mail newsletter and continues to be a life coach to other people with disabilities.
A fresh start
Austin has been the place for Ryan to reconnect with her sisters, get in better health and restart her business. It’s also where she found new love.
She wanted someone who was serious about God, intelligent, shared her values, was attractive to her and would not cast her aside because of her physical limitations. “He’ll be a rare find, but I felt like he’s out there.”
She met her husband, Kevin, online at Christian Mingle in 2012. They talked a lot before meeting at Whole Foods on St. Patrick’s Day for a first date.
On a second date, he wanted to go to a butterfly festival, which worried her, but he took a chair for her and told her they could leave if she needed.
They married last year.
Today, Ryan has learned to pace herself — and that’s key with her body. She plans her schedule knowing she needs to alternate a day of activity with a day of rest most weeks. One of her favorite poems that she wrote is titled “Slow Down”: “One day at a time, Learning balance each day, Lord, help us slow down, This I pray.”
She does aqua therapy to keep her body moving and she tries not to push it. On good days, she works in her office; but on others she still uses her bed. She also trained her dog, Christie, to pick up things off the floor and bring them to her.
She always thought when she was lying in bed feeling like she couldn’t do anything, that God could use her in some way.
“No matter what,” she says. “We have to have hope. Never give up.”
Cards, prints and bookmarks, along with the Cheer Mail newsletter and life coaching. Details at cheerfulhearts.com.
Request a business mentor at austinscore.org.
Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services
Find many services including Vocational Rehabilitative Services at dars.state.tx.us.