Many children dream of a professional sports career. But only a few succeed. Even smaller is the number of athletes with special needs or disabilities who get the chance to play for a professional team.
That’s what’s so unique about Ryan Wlodyka, a 13-year-old footballer from Charlotte. As the youngest of Neil and Amy Wlodyka’s four children, Ryan has struggled with physical delays and mobility issues since being born prematurely. While dealing with cerebral palsy, Ryan has become an exceptional athlete and is training to become a Paralympian.
The secret of his success? The continued support of his Atrium Health Levine Children’s care team and her devoted family. Moreover, it does not hurt that he devotes himself entirely to sports.
Ryan and his family are delighted that he served as honorary captain of the Charlotte Football Club game on July 30, 2022, where he was recognized on the pitch ahead of the game.
Ryan is part of CP Soccasiona team created by United States Soccer Federation national program for the physically handicapped. Ryan and his family hope he will have the opportunity to play for the United States National Paralympic Team once he is a bit older.
In January 2022, Ryan traveled to Florida for an invitation-only CP Soccer national training camp. He was the youngest and one of the most talented players among the 20 invited children.
Physical delays, early treatments
Despite an otherwise healthy pregnancy, Ryan arrived early at just 28 weeks, weighing just 2 pounds, 12 ounces at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which his doctors say occurred in utero and caused cerebral palsy. He spent 44 days in the NICU at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital before returning home to meet his siblings.
Ryan’s condition caused physical delays in his development. He suffers from muscle spasticity, which means that his muscles tend to contract. When he was younger, he couldn’t put his heels down, so running was a challenge. And he raised his hands when they shook.
To increase his mobility, he had various therapies and surgeries. When she was 2 years old, her physical therapist started Botox injections in her legs as well as physical therapy. At the age of 5, Ryan underwent heel surgery. “He had both feet in a cast for eight weeks,” Neil said. “But he didn’t know anything different – he just went with it. We have video of him with both feet in plaster kicking a football.
Personalized and caring support
Ryan’s care team has supported the Wlodyka family from the start. For example, (now retired) neonatologist Chuck Engstrom, MD, and Andrew Herman, MD, a neonatologist and now chief medical officer of Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital, helped alleviate much of the family’s anxiety at the hospital. Engstrom delivered Ryan and supported the family throughout their stay. Herman eased the family’s anxiety the night they discovered Ryan had a brain hemorrhage.
Upon leaving the hospital, NICU nurses advised Amy and Neil to take whatever they offered, including home nursing care and assessments, and decide later if they would not. didn’t need it. “That was probably some of the best advice we’ve ever received,” Amy shared. “It wasn’t until he was 18 months old that Ryan was able to identify real mobility issues. As we were already part of home health services, we were only able to have a home physiotherapist a week later.
The Wlodyka family also relied on the support of Ryan’s team of nurses, pediatrician and ophthalmologist, all of whom had experience caring for premature babies and the compassion to help the family through this period of their life.
“We were so lucky to have all of these people on our son’s care team,” added Neil. “They have all played an important role in helping us through this uncertain time in our lives. We couldn’t have done it without them.
Success of siblings
It was Ryan’s brothers’ dedication to high performance competitive soccer that inspired him to get involved in the sport. “He’s been on the pitch with us for a few weeks after coming back from the hospital,” Neil said. “He knows the game very well. He went to every one of Jack’s games – home and away – the whole time he was in college.
“That’s what Jack and Sam did, so why shouldn’t I do it too?” said Ryan. “We fell in love with football as a family, and now it’s what I love to do.”
Ryan’s health journey, in turn, inspired his siblings in their careers. Jack, Sam and his sister Mary all graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing just five days apart. Additionally, they all passed their national boards and had nursing jobs lined up when they graduated.
Mary now works as a neonatal intensive care nurse at Levine Children’s, the same unit where her little brother spent the first days of his life. “Growing up and learning what Ryan was going through, I was always interested in being part of the team that helps families like ours,” she explained. “It has been an incredibly stressful time for our family, and I want to help these families by getting their babies home safely. They are so small and cannot defend themselves.
Jack, a pediatric nurse at Levine Children’s, echoes his sister’s sentiments. “I know the difference nurses made to our family when there was so much uncertainty,” he said. “If I can give this back to another family in a similar situation, I want to do so. Ryan, thank you for inspiring us for our careers.
Neil, an assistant vice president at Atrium Health who works in the finance department, finds it “sometimes overwhelming” to think about the impact his family has on patient care. “Having three children on the clinical side is amazing. What I ultimately do to help patients and be their advocate – that’s what my kids want to do too.
Ryan’s family feels very lucky that cerebral palsy and asthma are the only health issues he faces. Her physical therapist and pediatrician have given her stretching recommendations that help her improve her mobility and performance on the court. He may need another heel cord surgery in the future.
For now, Ryan remains focused on his game. “For a 13-year-old, he’s pretty rigid with his schedule and does a lot of things on his own, including making his bed every morning,” said Amy. “He’s got the para-national game ahead of him, so he’s training and training constantly to prepare. Every day, he either goes to the soccer field to practice or he runs.
As Charlotte Football Club’s honorary game captain, Ryan felt a little closer to his dreams, and it was a moment that confirmed to his siblings that with the right team of nurses supporting a patient , everything is possible !
Learn more about personalized pediatric care at Levine Children’s.