You may be familiar with his story. Maybe you prayed for Riesch when his life took an unexpected turn seven years ago.
Bryon Riesch, Bus Ad ’03, is a systems analyst at Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee, president of a national foundation and, in his spare time, an eighth-grade basketball coach. He’s also a C5 quadriplegic.
It was spring 1998. Then a freshman at Marquette, Riesch was at a party with friends enjoying the first warm weather of the season when he took a turn diving onto a plastic waterslide. He landed awkwardly head first, wrenched his neck, and knew instantly that something was wrong.
At the hospital, his worst fears were confirmed. Riesch had bruised his spinal cord and was paralyzed from the chest down. He underwent surgery to fuse three vertebrae and then spent a month on a ventilator, immobilized from head to toe. He communicated by blinking.
While he dealt with the trauma of his injury, Riesch says, he thought about his future. When his dad, Ken, asked Bryon if he could still lead a productive life, Bryon said, “yes.”
“My dad told me that whenever I meet someone, I should look them in the eyes and shake their hand, and I’ll be amazed at what I get back,” he recalls.
Riesch returned to Marquette just four months after the accident. He started slowly, taking only one class — Spanish. He needed to learn how to learn, how to navigate the little things that had once been second nature. How would he study now that he couldn’t take lecture notes? How would he handle paging through a textbook? How would he get to and from Straz Hall for classes?
“I’m a competitive person so I started to look at my injury as something I was going to overcome. I believed I could still make an impact, and I wasn’t going to let this beat me,” he recalls. And he didn’t; Riesch graduated from Marquette in 2003.
“I received tremendous support from the people at Marquette,” he says. “Whatever I needed, I got. People took notes for me. They opened doors for me.”
A professor put Riesch in touch with Goodwill Industry’s Ability Connection Program. Which in turn helped Riesch apply for an internship with Northwestern Mutual. Today, he is employed in the IT department providing technical support for the company’s sales agents.
For Riesch, technology is not only a profession — it’s his lifeline. With voice-recognition software, a phone headset and a few other high-tech gadgets, he has everything he needs to do his job and do it well.
Inspired by the financial support he received following the accident, he founded the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation to raise funds for scholarships for individuals who are dealing with neurological disabilities and to support paralysis research. One of the highlight fund-raising events is the summer golf outing. Riesch recruits at least a few foursomes from Marquette. Last year the outing had to be expanded to make room for more duffers.
“When a person sustains an injury like mine, there are many hidden costs,” he explains. “I wanted to be able to help other people out.”
The foundation has disbursed more than $600,000 in grants. The dual focus of research and immediate support to students mirrors Riesch’s personal philosophy. “It’s a constant balancing act between finding a way to live day to day, while dreaming and hoping for a cure,” he admits.
That hope drives Riesch to the gym three times a week to work out with a physical therapist. “I know there is going to be a cure,” he says, “and I want to be ready for it.”
The Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation’s goal is to find a cure for paralysis through funding the latest in medical research, and to provide assistance to those who suffer from neurological disorders.
Since the foundation was established in January 2001, nearly $600,000 has been raised to fight paralysis. The foundation awarded $93,275 in grants to medical researchers, charitable grants and scholarships in 2005.