Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 12:00 AM
Reprinted with Permission of Paul Schwartzman
As midnight approaches, the father is where he was when the day began, sitting on the edge of his son’s bed, peering into his unfocused eyes and misshapen mouth, rubbing his bare chest and scarred scalp. Checking his diaper. Making sure his boy is okay.
He is not okay. Ryan Diviney is 21 years old. For the past year, he has existed in what his doctors call a vegetative state, or “eyes-open coma,” resulting from a horrific beating. He is awake but seemingly unaware. His father describes his son’s existence as little more than that of a heart beating inside a body.
“Great day,” Ken Diviney says, pressing his unshaven cheek to his son’s. “You’re safe. You took a nasty bump on your head. You’re going to come out of that coma. I’ve got everything together on the outside. You need to focus on waking up.”
Ken quit his job running a health club in Loudoun County to care for his only son. Every day, he brushes Ryan’s teeth and bathes him, administers 50 medications, feeds him through a tube attached to his stomach, changes his catheter, stretches his limbs and talks to him with the hope that his son can hear and may one day respond. His commitment is unwavering, yet not without moments of doubt.
Would it have been better for Ryan if he had died that night? Ken has asked himself.
His wife, Sue; his daughter, Kari, a college freshman; his parents and sisters; their friends, the “prayer warriors” who bring meals and run errands for the family – everyone worries about Ken, 46, the exhausting hours he puts in, the despair that clouds his otherwise playful, mischievous eyes. They wonder: Will the son’s tragedy bring down the father?
On many nights, Ken dozes on a mattress next to Ryan’s hospital bed in what once was an office on the first floor of their Ashburn house. Tonight, Ken leaves the monitoring to his wife and Ryan’s night nurse.
Ken needs sleep. In a few hours, he will drive 200 miles to a West Virginia courthouse, where he will replay the cataclysm that destroyed his family. He will address the young man who kicked his son in the head and left him near death on the cold concrete of a parking lot in Morgantown.
“I will do the best I can,” Ken whispers to his son. “I won’t let you down.”
The glories of Ryan Diviney’s childhood are crowded onto a family-room bookshelf, a thicket of trophies and plastic-cased baseballs, each bearing a memory recorded in his father’s hand: “April 27, 1996, Game Ball, Home run, Triple, Two Singles.” “Sept. 13, 2000, Home Run, Left Field.” “June 24, 2004, Grand slam, Threw Complete Game.”
Ryan played baseball and football at Broad Run High but understood that sports would not be his livelihood. As he enrolled at West Virginia University, he imagined himself becoming a lawyer, judge or senator. Something that would let him dress in a bow tie. Men who wear bow ties, he told his father, are independent thinkers.
Ryan loved to debate. Would the Redskins win Sunday? Was Jason Campbell a good quarterback? Were his beloved Atlanta Braves baseball’s best? Ryan might debate morality or public policy or who was the best-looking girl in class, but he could never resist a sports argument. Perhaps that’s why he felt compelled to object as he and two friends encountered a scrum of college students ranting about the Philadelphia Phillies at 3 a.m. on a November night in 2009, outside the Dairy Mart convenience store in Morgantown.
Brian McLhinney, 20, Ryan’s housemate, who was with him that night, remembers his friend shouting something along the lines of “Phillies suck!”
Someone in the other group said, “What?”
Ryan had been drinking but was “not extremely intoxicated” as he and his friends went out to get a stromboli, said Morgantown police detective Chris Dalton. The group they encountered consisted of six or seven students, all of whom had been partying.
What happened next is not entirely clear, the detective said, perhaps because memories were rendered hazy by alcohol. Yet police said several facts are certain, confirmed by witnesses and by a security camera that recorded the early part of the conflict: As the argument became more heated and the two groups passed each other, Ryan turned back and approached the other group to say something, only to step back after someone shoved him. Someone punched McLhinney, knocking him unconscious. Someone hit Ryan’s other friend.
After Ryan backed away, Jonathon May, a WVU student, sneaked up and punched him in the face. Ryan never struck anyone. After Ryan fell, Austin Vantrease, 19, kicked him in the head with a motion that a witness compared to “punting” a football, the detective said. May was later convicted of misdemeanor battery and sentenced to a year in prison; Vantrease was charged with malicious assault, a felony.
Everyone ran, according to court testimony. Ryan lay on the ground, bleeding from his left ear and suffering seizures. When Ryan’s parents reached the hospital a few hours later, the doctor told them their son’s jaw was broken and his skull was fractured in two places. He was bleeding from his brain.
The Divineys faced a choice: Doctors could leave their son as he was, and he would most likely die, or they could remove part of his skull, which would let his brain swell. Either way, Ryan might not live more than a day or two. Ken and Sue told the doctor to remove the skull plate and summoned a priest to administer last rites.
A year later, on a frigid Saturday night on the anniversary of the attack, dozens of people stand on the Divineys’ lawn, holding candles, sipping cider and praying for Ryan, who is inside, behind drawn shades, being hoisted from his wheelchair by an electronic lift. His mother calls it her son’s swing.
“All right, Ry, back to bed with you,” his father says.
“Get you all comfy,” his mother says.
Sue steps outside to greet people. A senior director of finance at CNN, she’s more patient than her husband with small talk. A woman says, “Hi, Sue.” Another asks, “Are you hanging in there?” Another wants her to know that no one expects them to wheel Ryan outside.
A woman asks about Ken. Is he taking a break? Is he getting out? Is he getting rest?
“He dozes,” Sue says. “I tell him, ‘Will you please sleep?’ He’s afraid he’ll miss something.”
Any moment could be Ryan’s last. In the past year, he and his parents spent three months at a rehab center in Atlanta and five months at another in New Jersey. Surgeons have operated nine times. Ryan’s heart stopped beating at least twice. His temperature has plummeted as low as 92 degrees and as high as 109.8. The fevers have caused Ryan to moan for as long as 18 hours.
As his condition has evolved, the focus has shifted from keeping him alive to repairing him. In July, Ryan opened his eyes for the first time. His wild temperature swings have largely abated. One day, he appeared to respond to commands, turning his head and lifting his hand.
“Then we didn’t see it again,” said Jonathan Fellus, director of brain injury services at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey. “It was too much for pure coincidence, but it wasn’t enough for us to sink our teeth into. It was hopeful but also cruel.”
Fellus estimates that Ryan has a 10 to 20 percent chance of waking, probably into what the doctor describes as “basic consciousness, closer to being an infant than an adult.” Life expectancy for someone in a vegetative state is eight to 10 years.
Still, Fellus says, the aggressive, experimental treatment regimen that Ken and Sue now oversee helps “maintain his viability and health at the maximum level so that you’re not left with nothing to work with when a future breakthrough appears.”
The Divineys report on Ryan’s progress on a Web site and a Facebook page that has more than 5,300 subscribers, including people who have cleaned their house, built a ramp for Ryan’s wheelchair, dropped off meals and hosted fundraisers that have collected $30,000 to help pay their medical bills. Next year’s tab is expected to exceed $500,000.
A prayer group formed, including Mary Mitchell, a stay-at-home mother who said she concluded that her destiny was to help the Divineys after Ken told her he might need to hire someone to help process paperwork and run errands.
“This is a God thing,” Mitchell says, voice choking, after she drops off some medication. “God has placed me here.” The prayer group organized the anniversary vigil for Ryan, inviting a minister who stood in the middle of a circle and spoke of God’s power.
Inside, Ken sits next to his son’s bed. He no longer attends church. He no longer believes in prayer or the notion that God has a larger plan. He has lost his faith.
“What kind of God would allow this to happen?” the father asks. “What kind of God wouldn’t correct it?”
Just before noon on a Wednesday, Ryan is in his wheelchair, head tilted back, dressed in a West Virginia T-shirt, shorts, socks and sneakers.
“All right, Ryan, we’re going to brush your teeth,” his father says.
In five days, Ken will drive to West Virginia for the sentencing of Austin Vantrease. A month after the attack, detectives drove to the University of Delaware and confronted Vantrease as he sat in his criminal justice class. In July, he was convicted in the assault.
Ken thinks of what he’ll say at the sentencing, what photographs will show his son’s path from fairy-tale life to abject helplessness.
“This is your electric toothbrush,” Ken announces, holding it a finger’s length from Ryan’s right eye. “Ryan, open your mouth.”
A moment later: “Okay, I’m going in.
A moment after that: “All right, I’m in now.”
Ken is unshaven. His eyes are tired. Every few minutes, he bows his head, as if resting. He is accustomed to child care, having spent 10 years as a stay-at-home dad when Ryan and Kari were younger and Sue’s career was flourishing. He enjoys ribbing his wife. When she tells him about her coming business trip to New York, he turns to Ryan and says, “What do you say we watch porn and smoke cigars in our underwear?”
He smiles at Sue, who rubs her eyes and groans.
Everyone wants Ken to take a break. Wouldn’t it be nice if he went out for dinner? they ask. Or a beer. Ryan would want it that way, they say, a suggestion that irritates Ken no end. No one knows what Ryan would want, he grouses.
A close relative e-mailed Ken, worrying that he’d be consumed by “extreme depression and despair,” urging him to let others help with Ryan’s care. “You have completely stopped living and that’s not healthy,” the relative wrote.
What do people expect? Ken asks. Taking time away from his son violates his sense of parental duty. Nursing Ryan – feeding, bathing, touching his skin and hair – is what makes him feel better.
“I’m the dad,” he says.
He hears the front door open. A woman from the prayer group calls hello from the foyer, asking whether he needs help. Ken’s shoulders sag. He appreciates the offers, really he does. But why do people just walk into their home? Why do they always seem to come when his son is naked?
An ambulance arrives just after 2 p.m. to take Ryan and Ken to a radiologist for a CAT scan and X-ray.
As he watches nurses attend to Ryan, a sadness envelops Ken that continues on the ride home. A beautiful day and we’re in an ambulance, he thinks. My son should be at college. He should be living his life. He should be more than a beating heart.
At such moments, Ken has trained himself to redirect his thoughts, to focus not on his son, but his attackers, especially Vantrease, the one who kicked him in the head, the one whose sentencing hearing he will attend in a few days. The image of Vantrease somehow energizes him, turning his sadness into anger.
The ambulance arrives home. Ken squeezes Ryan’s hand. It’s 4:09. Time to brush his son’s teeth.
Ken slips on a gray suit jacket, kisses Sue and Ryan goodbye, and drives in the pre-dawn dark to the courthouse in Morgantown, a three-hour trip that leaves time for his mind to wander.
He reaches for his iPhone and switches on a video link to a camera in Ryan’s room. His son is in bed, perhaps asleep, perhaps not. His father cannot tell.
Ken arrives at the courthouse, sits next to his daughter, and stares straight ahead as Robert Vantrease, Austin’s father, apologizes to the court for his son’s actions and promises to keep praying for Ryan’s recovery. Then Austin Vantrease, in orange prison garb and shackles, apologizes and vows to “spend the remainder of my life as a model citizen.”
Then it’s Ken’s turn. His son, he tells the judge, arrived at West Virginia with big ambitions, recording a 4.0 grade point average his first semester, one more achievement in a young life filled with them.
“An all-American boy,” Ken says. “He loved sports, dogs and women.”
Forty-five minutes later, he’s still talking and showing photos: the Divineys on their last vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Ryan on the left, smiling. Ryan hitting his last home run. Ryan at a West Virginia football game, the last time his father hugged him before the night he was assaulted. Ryan in a hospital bed, half his skull missing.
Ken describes Vantrease’s parents as failures. He rejects Austin’s apology and says he deserves 10 years in prison, and even that wouldn’t be enough.
“My fantasy is to have two minutes in a locked room with a baseball bat,” Ken tells the court. Austin, he promises, “won’t come out in any worse condition than my son.”
In the first row, Vantrease’s mother lurches forward in her seat.
Ken isn’t finished.
Losing a child is said to be life’s worst experience, he says. This is worse. “We have his body,” he says, “but we don’t have his mind.”
The judge sentences Vantrease to 10 years, with parole possible after two. Ken drives home, arriving under a hazy moon. He heads straight for the kitchen, where his wife is with Ryan.
“Did you have a good day?” Ken asks his son. “Can you tell me about it?
“Turn your head, Ryan.
“Turn your head.