For a man who spent 22 years in one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, as a Mine Warfare and Clearance Diving Officer in the Royal Australian Navy, it was a relatively mundane incident that changed Ryan Kelly’s life.
In May 2019, Ryan was the expedition leader for an operation clearing unexploded ordnance from World War II in a remote area of the Solomon Islands.
‘It’s an operation that we run every two or so years through the Southwest Pacific called Render Safe,’ Ryan explains.
‘Render Safe is where we go into countries and deal with the unexploded remnants of war.
‘So we clean up the villages, just making them safer for the people there.’
With a tropical storm closing in, Ryan describes having a ‘really awkward fall’ from about the height of a house roof.
‘I came to an abrupt halt on a big rocky boulder at the bottom,’ Ryan recalls.
‘It felt like an electric shock peeling from my left ankle to my right shoulder and it changed the trajectory of my life.’
The operation in the Solomons wasn’t the most challenging assignment Ryan had faced since joining the Navy in 2001. When 9/11 happened soon after, Ryan was on one of the first two Australian ships sent into the Gulf and he saw active service in the Middle East.
After being repatriated to Australia from the Solomons, Ryan saw a leading neuro-spinal specialist, who had a reputation for being conservative with surgical intervention.
‘I went into his office and he had my scans open,’ Ryan remembers.
‘He said, “I don’t know how you walked in here.” So he straight up said, “Look, we need to fuse [the damaged vertebrae] and we need to do it last week.’
After a similar second opinion, Ryan went to a third specialist who agreed that a multiple level fusion to correct the malfunction would be needed at some point.
Despite periods of intense back pain, Ryan was unwilling to resort to surgery or prolonged pharmacological intervention without exploring other options first.
‘My good days, I’m quite ambulant, I can walk around and I can do things,’ Ryan says.
‘My worst days, though, I need help showering, so I get the full spectrum of pain and discomfort.
‘We’re just trying to buy as much time as possible, to be honest, before wanting to tread that path with the multi level fusion.’
One of his Navy treating doctors suggested consulting getback Port Macquarie director and principal physiotherapist Nathan Lynch, based in Ryan’s home town.
‘He [the doctor] said Nathan has a back rehabilitation system that’s been quite successful,’ Ryan recalls.
‘And my approach has always been conservative first, don’t rule anything out and try anything and everything.’
That was late 2019, and Ryan has been seeing Nathan at his Wauchope clinic at least once a week since.
‘I’m part of the furniture!’ Ryan jokes.
’It’s been awesome. After seeing three reputable neuro-spinal specialists who went through my history with a fine tooth comb, it’s accepted that I’ve suffered a number of micro compression injuries over the years from jumping out of helicopters, diving, carrying heavy stuff.
‘The fall in the Solomons was like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
‘So treatment with Nathan was pivotal for me because up until then, it was scary.
‘I didn’t know how to correctly pain manage.’
Ryan has been focused on building up the strength and mobility of his spinal muscles to support his spine.
‘I’m using all of the six back rehabilitation devices, but if I have a flare up, Nathan will dial it down.
‘I might only exercise on the extension and flexion devices, for example, and we’ll take some of the other ones out.’
There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way though, including a three-month stint in hospital in early 2023.
It was an inconvenient setback when Ryan was training to compete at the Invictus Games, initiated by Prince Harry as a recovery pathway for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women.
Ryan had been selected in the Australian team for the Invictus Games in Germany in September after an interview process and selection camp.
‘It got to about 10 weeks out from the games,’ Ryan explains. ‘And my partner and I were saying things like, “do we think this [competing] is achievable?”’
‘Particularly without exacerbating some pretty serious symptoms that I’d been having with the neuropathic pain.’
Months of being sedentary in hospital had put doubts into Ryan’s mind about what he’d be capable of achieving at the Games, particularly in his favoured swimming events.
‘Nathan and I had reservations about how I would go with an explosive start off the swimming block, noting the hyperextension involved in that movement,’ Ryan says.
‘And the other point of vulnerability we saw was going to be the hard turn. It was a short course pool, so there were many turns at pace.
‘We just used a crawl, walk, run approach to being able to get in the pool and be competitive, and hope it was enough.
‘I mean, just getting on that plane felt like winning for me.’
In the end, Ryan did a lot more than get on the plane and make up numbers in the pool, coming away with four Gold medals and a silver.
‘It was amazing to come home with something shiny, particularly with my journey over the last twelve months,’ he says.
‘The hospital stays, visits, ambulance rides, all the chaos that my whole family has been through.
‘To be able to have them there with me in Germany and share that experience, it was of immeasurable aid to all of us. Really special and lifelong memories for everyone.’
Another crowning moment at the games was having a chat with Prince Harry.
‘Invictus is changing lives, without a shadow of a doubt.,’ he says. ‘I was fortunate enough to be able to express that to Prince Harry himself in a one on one conversation.
‘We’re so grateful that he remains the patron of the games, It’s his baby, and so to be part of that just added to the special nature of the whole experience.’
After taking a week off after Germany, Ryan is back swimming and doing getback treatment once a week.
‘I get some of my worst symptoms when I stop moving,’ he says.
‘Nathan has been integral in re-educating me, along with psychological assistance, that moving in spite of pain is the best thing that I can be doing.
‘Staying functional and mobile, that’s the focus.’
getback™ Port Macquarie’s Nathan Lynch says Ryan’s attitude and resilience have been important qualities in gradually overcoming a variety of health challenges including chronic back and radicular [nerve related] leg pain.
‘Chronic pain keeps you from sleeping, drains your energy and wears you down physically and mentally, if you let it.
‘Despite grade 2 traumatic Spondylolisthesis [a shift of one vertebrae on another], Ryan has avoided surgery, retrained his nervous system and built the muscles in his spine and legs to let his body achieve amazing things.
‘I’m thrilled to have been part of Ryan’s journey.’
Ryan is eternally grateful for the help of Nathan and many other people in his ‘safety net’.
‘My support network is huge,’ he says.
‘Nathan is one of many health professionals I spend time with who I’ve got to credit for where I’m at.’