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For Utah State athlete recovering from life-threatening injury, time and faith are his friends

Track and field athlete Roman Ruiz is still recovering from injury suffered in March, but step by step he is making progress

Vera Ruiz
Former Utah State track and field athlete Roman Ruiz, who collapsed on the track last March after suffering cardiac arrest, continues to rehab. He is able to jog as far as 100 yards at a time without stopping and complete a mile on the treadmill in about 16 minutes. “That’s a whole different level from where he was two months ago,” says his father.
Vera Ruiz

The last time we checked in on Roman Ruiz, the Utah State track and field athlete who collapsed during a track workout, he was in a hospital bed in Ogden and existing in a minimally conscious state. That was eight months ago. He is now living with his parents in Pasco, Washington, and undergoing an intense rehabilitation regimen.

His progress has been a roller coaster ride.

Ruiz, who suffered cardiac arrest on March 7, was progressing in the spring, but, says his father Javier, “Things regressed in July and August. There was less intuition of conversation, less awareness levels. It was disheartening. After putting in all that work in therapy and then to take not just one step backward, but a few steps … I was getting scared.”

The Ruiz family wanted to try alternative forms of treatment — specifically hyperbaric oxygen therapy — but that was problematic. The family’s insurance company wouldn’t cover it, and it was expensive and unavailable in their area. The only place they could find such treatment was two hours away in Spokane, which was unworkable since Roman would require 40 consecutive days of treatment.

Javier considered moving to Spokane, but that, too, was cost prohibitive when combined with the cost of treatment. He also considered buying a hyperbaric chamber, but, “if I did that I wouldn’t be able to afford all the other therapies he requires.”

A local newspaper article explained the family’s dilemma in early September. After reading the article, one of Roman’s former high school classmates contacted Javier and said her employer, Pacific Clinic, offered the therapies they were seeking. Pacific Clinic, which had just opened in the Tri-Cities area, describes itself as a “recovery zone for at-risk clients with cognitive problems such as traumatic brain injury, PTSD and post-concussion syndrome.”

Ruiz recently completed his 40th hyperbaric treatment and will continue to use it. The hyperbaric chamber infuses the body with an increased level of oxygen at the cellular level, which is believed to aid healing.

“The first week we saw a turnaround,” said Javier a couple of weeks ago. “We started noticing changes. … He’s back on track. He’s a little bit beyond the point where he was two months ago.”

Last week, Javier told the Deseret News, “(Roman) continues to improve, more physically than mentally right now, but he’ll be starting occupational and speech therapy soon, so we hope that part picks up, too.”

Besides the hyperbaric chamber, Roman undergoes other alternative treatments — vibrasonic whole-body vibration therapy, red-light therapy and mirror therapy. Eventually, he also could undergo oxygen contrast therapy, pulsed electromagnetic therapy and sensation/deprivation therapy, among other treatments.

Roman’s treatment at Pacific is being overseen by former Canadian Football League quarterback Steve White, who suffered the debilitating effects of concussions during his playing career.

More than eight months ago, Roman Ruiz, a decathlete, was working out on the USU track when he collapsed. Only one other person was at the track that morning and he happened to be a retired physician named John Bailey. He was walking laps when he found Ruiz unconscious. He called 911 and performed CPR until the EMTs arrived.

As originally reported in the Deseret News, Ruiz was technically dead for 30 to 35 minutes. He was resuscitated after a lengthy CPR procedure, three defibrillation attempts and a shot of epinephrine. The danger of oxygen deprivation is brain damage. Ruiz was taken to Logan Regional Hospital and then life-flighted to McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden. He was put in a medically induced coma for several days. He spent nine days in the ICU.

“He’s making incremental improvements,” said Javier recently. “Time is our friend, the doctors say.”

Javier says that shortly after beginning hyperbaric treatments, Roman gained new awareness and began asking questions that he had never asked — What month is it? Why am I not in school? Why am I here? He asks those same questions periodically. “He’s trying to put things in context,” says Javier. Roman says little in response to his father’s explanations. On occasion he raises his eyebrows, as if to say, “Really?”

Javier noticed that his son’s endurance is improving. A couple months ago, Roman was urged to jog as part of his rehab. He would jog only a couple of steps before slowing to a walk; the farthest he jogged was 5 five yards. Now he is able to jog as far as 100 yards at a time without stopping and complete a mile on the treadmill in about 16 minutes. “That’s a whole different level from where he was two months ago,” says Javier.

Roman, a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and a former missionary in Rome), has been attending a young single adult ward, accompanied by his father (Roman can’t drive). “I go but I stay back,” says Javier. “He knows some of the people. It’s his hometown. People know they have to encourage him to talk. They’ll initiate (conversation) and he will respond, but if you ask yes-no questions, that’s all you’ll get. It’s gratifying to see him get back a social life.”

Utah State track athlete Roman Ruiz
Utah State track athlete Roman Ruiz clears the bar on the high jump. After suffering cardiac arrest eight months ago, Ruiz is making progress in his recovery.
Wade Denniston

Some of his former USU teammates maintain contact via calls and texts. In recent weeks Roman has been more communicative and responsive, although most of his responses are short. His teammates know they have to carry most of the conversation and prod him for responses. But when one of his teammates said she was having a bad day, he asked why. That was progress.

Aspen Drecksel, a close friend and teammate, says, “It’s been incredible to see the progress, but knowing him on the level I did, it’s still disheartening and sad to see him this way. He’s a very different Roman. Every now and then he’ll say something like the old Roman. It’s hard — it’s surreal.”

What is the best the family can hope for, Javier is asked? “We ask that all the time,” he says. “It’s a good question.”

He took Roman to a physiatrist, a physician who treats a variety of conditions related to the brain and spinal cord, among other parts of the body. As she conducted a series of tests to evaluate Roman, she told Javier she was impressed. Afterward, she told him, “Given the circumstances, this guy is in good shape,” Javier recounted. “When you consider that it (cardiac arrest) happened only seven months ago, he has a good foundation to work with. Time is your best friend. We don’t know when he might reach a certain level of independence. Brain injuries are unique. But I can tell you that what I’ve seen is good. We have a lot to work with here because of his cognition.”

Javier believes something less tangible than science is carrying his son and his family. “We have to be patient and trust in Heavenly Father’s plan,” he says. “The thing that has made the biggest difference is prayer and Roman’s personal testimony of Jesus Christ.”