When Ryan Sutherland, ’12, moved into his freshman dorm at Whitworth in fall 2009, his father, Steve, moved in, too. Far from being in a typical new-roommate situation, the pair already shared incredible teamwork, determination and love.
Ryan has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a debilitating disease that causes muscles to degenerate, which has left him a quadriplegic with very limited use of his right hand. Living and studying on a college campus required daily assistance. He and his father shared not only a dorm room, but classes and meals with friends in the dining hall. To other students, Steve was almost as much a Whitworth student as Ryan.
Steve brushed Ryan’s teeth, fed him meals, took notes in class, and lifted him in and out of bed; Ryan navigated campus by operating a motorized wheelchair. On weekends and holidays, Steve worked remotely for his medical center in Leavenworth, Wash. “We value and guard our time together,” Steve said in a Spokesman-Review article. “We don’t know how much time we’ll have. We made the decision early on that we want to spend it together. It’s been a gift.”
Father and son operated seamlessly, and Ryan, a psychology major, excelled at Whitworth and inspired those around him on campus and beyond. He participated in En Christo and counseled residents at an assisted-living facility in Spokane, acute-care patients at his father’s medical center, and the homeless at the Lighthouse Mission, in Wenatchee, Wash. He also interned as a guidance counselor at his former high school, in Cashmere, Wash.
Even in high school, Ryan was a standout student: he played trumpet, sang in the choir, and acted in school plays. He earned his Eagle Scout rank by organizing an effort to make Cashmere Pioneer Village & Museum handicapped-accessible with wheelchair ramps and benches.
When Ryan crossed the commencement stage to receive his Whitworth diploma, his dad at his side, the crowd stood and applauded. Vice President for Student Life Kathy Storm, who had taught Ryan in her Core 250 discussion group, said, “Ryan has a way of bringing people out. He speaks about his own dark passages with honesty and vulnerability in a way that is inspiring. He invites people into a deeper sense of being human.” And of the father-son team, Storm said this: “Their presence is a remarkable commitment to learning and to our community. Ryan is much loved and respected here, but so is Steve.”