Ryans honor son’s love of medicine after tragic loss
Published: April 09, 2014 by Bryant Boutwell, DrPH
Ragan Ryan knew he wanted to be a physician from an early age. A 1987 graduate of Houston Independent School District’s Lee High School, he was an outstanding student – top of his class – who was bright, inquisitive, and service oriented. He seemed to excel in everything he set his sights on. His parents, Tom and Emily Ryan, remember with more than a bit of pride, “Ragan wanted to fly airplanes even before he could drive a car and diligently approached flying lessons with the same discipline and organization he exhibited for every other goal he set.” At the young age of 16, he added pilot to his impressive list of accomplishments—one of the youngest pilots in the state of Texas at the time.
It was on a volunteer medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic in 1985 that Ragan first met Philip C. Johnson, MD, division director, professor and vice-chair of general internal medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). In his spare time, Johnson – who is fluent in Spanish – can be found volunteering to assist remote clinics in Central America. He was the ideal mentor for Ragan, who relished the opportunity to explore his interests in medicine and learn by doing.
Remembers Johnson, “I knew his parents from my work on the Board of Amigos de las Americas and had heard about Ragan. We hired him in 1987 as a summer intern to help in our renal transplant service as well as AIDs projects entering data in spreadsheets. As a high school student and later as a college student, he continued to seek out additional summer experience in our clinics and research programs. He was so self-motivated and hard working. I could look him in the eye and see that sparkle that reflected his love of the clinical setting and desire to become a physician.”
After high school, Ragan followed his older brother to Middlebury College in Vermont—the same college their father had attended. Here, he found an outstanding liberal arts college strong on science and pre-med programs in an idyllic setting of small-town Vermont. He was a standout in academics, baseball, swim team, and water polo. His father, Tom Ryan, now retired, is a Harvard-trained management consultant who came to Houston in the early 1960s, where he met his wife, Emily, at a party. Both, it turns out, were from Westchester County in New York. The Ryans were an ideal match. Happily married, they will soon celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary.
Like both mother and father, Ragan was organized, disciplined, and always looking for a community cause he could assist. Says Ragan’s father Tom, “He even divided his days into a series of 30-minute segments just to organize his time and accomplish all he did on a daily basis.” As a pre-med student at Middlebury College, Ragan found research a perfect match for his inquisitive mind and would work tirelessly on the given challenge at hand.
He had just completed his junior year at Middlebury College, in the early summer of 1990, when in the blink of an eye, Ragan was gone. A fall from a balcony with weak railings that failed on a dark night in Boston took Ragan in an instant. He would never begin the summer research program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that brought him to the city. In Houston, his parents received the late night call every parent dreads. They rushed to Boston as did Ragan’s older brother, Kemper. The family of four would be three and their lives would never be the same. Says Johnson, “I was devastated when I first heard the news on that Sunday morning as I attended an Amigos board meeting. It was such a tragic loss. I was lost for words.”
But while Ragan’s life ended that late night in Boston, he’s far from forgotten.
Ragan’s work with Johnson on the transplant service, seeing firsthand the importance and benefits of organ donations, had inspired him and in turn, his family. In the immediate aftermath of his tragic fall, Ryan’s organs were generously donated. It is in the nature of the Ryan family to help others in need– even in times of their own loss and heartbreak.
In time, the Ryan family set their sights on other long-term opportunities to honor the memory of their son and started a foundation in his name. For starters, they endowed an Award in Excellence at Middlebury College, recognizing outstanding pre-med students at graduation. That program continues to this day, benefiting outstanding pre-med students. But it was hardly enough. The family wanted to do more as they recalled how much they and Ragan admired the work of Johnson and his UTHealth team.
Recalls Tom Ryan, “I was slow in thinking about UTHealth, but that changed after talking it over with Phil (Johnson).” In 1995, the T. Ragan Ryan Foundation Fund began providing annual stipends to support outstanding pre-med students at Middlebury and other colleges by affording them the opportunity to come to the Texas Medical Center and work with Johnson and his medical team in the Department of Internal Medicine.
The Ryan family notes they especially want these students from the small town environment of Middlebury (population 8,200) to have the opportunity to experience Houston and the Texas Medical Center by offering summer intern opportunities to work with Johnson in busy urban clinics or rural third-world medical missions – the same outstanding experiences Ragan had.
Adds Johnson, “When looking over applicants for our internships, I’m always looking for those qualities that I saw in Ragan. He lives on through these opportunities that are now afforded to other Middlebury pre-med students who, like Ragan, seek to serve others and find their way into a career in medicine.”
Recipients of Ragan’s foundation funds not only work with Johnson in the summer clinics and on January mission trips (also assisted with funding from the Ryan family), they also get to experience working with the many team members that work in the Department of Internal Medicine. Of special note, adds Johnson, is the work of Robin Hardwicke, PhD, RN, associate professor of internal medicine, who takes these students under her wing and deserves special recognition for all she has done for so many over the years. Students supported by the T. Ragan Ryan Foundation Fund are able to stay in UTHealth student housing thanks to assistance provided by Charles A. Figari, vice president and chief auxiliary enterprises officer.
Jacob Wyse, a Middlebury student and recent recipient of a Ryan stipend notes, “As an undergraduate, it’s rare to have the opportunity not just to sample clinical experience or shadow a doctor for hours at a time, but to really learn what clinical life is like and to actually work with and even get to know patients. The Ryan internship gave me that unique opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a medical professional. This is an opportunity most pre-meds don’t get until well into medical school.”
Summarizes Johnson, “Ragan lives on through his example and the support provided through the foundation in his name – an ongoing legacy that makes a difference in the lives and careers of all who cross paths with a very special young man named Ragan Ryan.”