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DOWNEY - Five year-old Annie Ruth, who loved to go snow skiing and water-skiing, and playing tennis, was having fun in gymnastics class when disaster struck.
"I was trying to do a somersault off a balance beam," Annie said. "I landed on my neck and pinched my spine." Her accident damaged her spinal cord and left her a C1-C2 Quadriplegic, which meant she would never again move her arms or legs. The accident made normal breathing impossible.
Her chances of living were slim, but her family, her doctors, and Annie never gave up hope. She spent nine months at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey before it was possible to go home to Rolling Hills. Since then, she has become an inspiration to several generations of Rancho patients and staff, and to people everywhere.
When I was at Rancho I was in traction, in a halo, with mouthsticks and a manual wheelchair," Annie said. "Both my mom and dad came down every day for nine months. I met a lot of good doctors and nurses and occupational and physical therapists at Rancho who helped me get better and stronger every day."
Her family and especially her parents, Craig and Marion, have been a tremendous support for her throughout her life. Her brothers Bob, Bill, and sister Lee are a valuable support and they are active in each other's lives. Yet she has accomplished a tremendous amount on her own.
"One of the most important things was learning to breathe on my own during the day," Annie said. "I do use a breathing machine while I sleep, but now I can go all day without any assistance in breathing."
She is a world-renowned artist and is one of the founders of the Art of Rancho program, which today includes more than 50 artists.
"I really enjoy painting and conversation with my friends," Annie said. "I like to create and work with colors and design. You have to keep working on it until it looks good, and it is fun when it does work out and I can share with others. If it makes them smile, then it makes me happy. Art has brought a lot to my life and others have enjoyed it, too."
"People can relate to art, which is really nice. It opens up a whole other world to you, where you can learn to appreciate other peoples' perspectives and outlook on life. Sometimes their personality matches their art and sometimes it doesn't. It's fascinating to see all the work that people do."
"My art is very colorful and joyful," she said. "It makes people feel a little better, even if just for the moment. Life is hard for a lot of people, and I'm glad I can bring a little bit of happiness into their life."
After her accident, Annie grew up in a very challenging world. "When I left Rancho, no regular school would accept me because I was in a wheelchair and on a breathing machine, so I ended up going to a school for the disabled in Inglewood for a while," she said. "Then my local school district decided to accept me on a trial basis. I passed summer school and I was approved to go to public school, where I remained until I graduated from high school.
"It was interesting to grow up in a period where I was not accepted," Annie said "We grew up without the ADA, without handicapped parking spaces, with no curb cuts and without laws to protect individuals with disabilities. You were on your own. There has been a lot of positive change in this area and Rancho has always been a big part of that."
"Dr. Donna Barras was my first doctor at Rancho, and all these years later, she is still a great friend," Annie said. "She was not only a very talented doctor, she was a wonderful person, too. Physical Therapist Jan Furumasu and all the people at CART (Center for Applied Rehabilitation Technology) have helped me so much over the years. Molly Doyle, Kathy Gross, Barb Phillips and so many others have helped teach me so much."
Annie had surgery for a life-threatening pressure ulcer at Rancho several years ago. "Dr. Salah Rubayi, a great physician with a great personality, saved my life," she said. "It was challenging being in one room in one position for 10 weeks. You have to be so still, not move, not change clothes."
"When the nurse told me I couldn't wash my hair, I replied that I wash my hair every day." Annie said. "I told her I could give up a lot of things, but I had to wash my hair. I asked what the other patients did. She said they were mostly guys. I said 'I'm not a guy and I need to wash my hair.' So we got some dry shampoo and learned how to make it work."
Annie had kidney surgery in another hospital where they changed out her tracheostomy so that she couldn't talk, eat or drink when she went home. "I thought they were joking, but the joke was on me," she said. "So we called Rancho, and Dr. John Farinacci changed out my trach and I quickly got back to my life. I owe so much to him and to Rancho."
Annie's many accomplishments include an outstanding educational record. After graduating from high school, she entered USC.
"Going to USC was a great experience," she said. "I went through the sorority rush, and it was a challenge because there were no accommodations for my disabling condition. So we arranged for friends to help me with a manual wheelchair. We did interviews during record heat and the rooms were so hot that by the end of the day you were exhausted, but I enjoyed talking with people so it was still fun.
"I joined Delta Gamma sorority, and we had many great times and great experiences." Annie said. "We loved to go to the football games, because there is a lot of good spirit at USC. It was just a blast."
Annie graduated from USC with honors. After college she worked for IBM and completed her MBA from Pepperdine University. After that she had a restaurant named "Annie's Pantry" in Torrance. Today she continues to work in technology as a computer forensics consultant.
She's also had many excellent adventures. "I've gone skydiving, hang gliding and paragliding, and white water rafting, too," Annie said. She even carried the torch for the 1984 Olympic Games. "It's a thrill to do these different things, and I love them all. It's a challenge, but you just figure out a way to make it work, you go for it, and you make it happen."
Although she takes a lot from life, Annie gives a lot as well.
"I learned early on that it's important to give back," she said. "I am very fortunate to be able to help so many others through serving on boards for nonprofit organizations. I have been on the board of a public fund that provides scholarships and mentoring to students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Ninety percent of them have gone on to college and of those, 95 percent have finished college. It was a good learning lesson, and I was chair of that for 7 years."
Annie worked with a Governance Committee for the state of California on the employment of people with disabilities. "We gave out scholarships to companies who did employ disabled people," she said. "I was also on the equipment advisory committee for the California Public Utilities Commission. I worked on accessible cell phones for the deaf, hard of hearing and physically challenged.
"We flew to Oakland twice a month for 8 years," Annie said. "It's nice for people to have accessible phones, because without them many people would be isolated and cut off from their family. These phones help people get reconnected to life. It was interesting to see how many people needed help to get their telephones. These are land lines, not smart phones or high-tech phones, but they make a huge difference for so many people who need them."
"We even had an anti-stuttering phone, which would take the stutter out of someone's conversation," she said. "This allowed people to communicate with their family and friends and also to talk with customers."
While she has helped many individuals with disabilities connect with others, Annie has remained connected to Rancho throughout her life. "I would like to say thank you to everyone at Rancho who has helped me so much here," she said. "Rancho has incredible doctors, therapists, nurses and staff. It's a wonderful community and everybody makes it happen for the patients."
"They help so many people and they care so much, and I have been to many hospitals where they didn't care," Annie said. "The beauty of Rancho is that the patients mean something to them. That's what brings good workers to Rancho and it's the people that are so supportive and so caring that make Rancho so great. That's been true of Rancho from way back to the present, and that's what separates it from other hospitals."
"Rancho has saved many people's lives that I have talked to," she said. "Many of these people, including me, would have died without Rancho. We owe a lot to Rancho. Rancho motivates people who have suffered terrible injuries to keep going, to keep participating at all the stages of life."
For all her accomplishments and her many contributions to Rancho and its patients, Annie will receive Rancho's highest honor, the Amistad Award, at the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation's 2013 Amistad Gala Saturday night at the Westin Long Beach Hotel. "I am so honored and humbled to think that the Rancho Foundation would choose me for the Amistad Award," she said.
Annie sums up her life by saying that her family, her sense of humor and her simple philosophy have helped her overcome the great challenges she has faced.
"Humor helps take the pressure off any situation," she said. "If you also think of things a little at a time, you can get through anything, I have learned to break challenges down into smaller bits that are much more manageable." She even developed a motto that helps her and others overcome life's obstacles: "Inch by Inch, Life's a Cinch!"
Published: April 11, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 52