MacDill Airman fights death, defies odds to remain in service

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
"All I remember was calling my dad to tell him I didn't feel well, and then waking up three weeks later in the hospital with equipment hooked up all over my body and tubes attached to my nose and throat...I was terrified."

Staff Sgt. Ryan Smith, 6th Operations Support Squadron Aircrew Flight Equipment craftsman, had only been in the Air Force for roughly a year when he had an adverse reaction to a pre-deployment Smallpox vaccination. According to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, for every million people vaccinated for Smallpox, roughly 33 could have a life-threatening reaction to the vaccine.

Ensuing the reaction, Smith underwent a total of 34 days of medical monitoring, to include two weeks spent in a coma. He was diagnosed with Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, a neurological, immune-mediated disorder in which widespread inflammation of the brain and spinal cord damages tissue.

Once he was able to show proper brain, motor, and auditory function, Smith was released back to his home of record for outpatient rehab, where continuous thoughts filled his head.

"The entire time I asked myself 'why me?' 'Why this obstacle placed in my life?' I'm new to the Air Force--all I want is to serve my country and deploy," said Smith.

After spending a little over two months in rehab, Smith was cleared by his doctor to return to temporary duty, where a whole new set of struggles began.  Now, he had to ensure that his recovery continued so he could save "the career he had always dreamed of." 

With degraded endurance and a series of permanent lesions on his brain, Smith did the only thing he knew would save his career--"remain positive, work hard, and hold no remorse." Although it was a slow road to recovery, the extra effort to achieve his goals paid off. 

Now, roughly five years after his hospitalization, Smith has amassed a series of more-than-honorable accomplishments. He has deployed three times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,  traveled to 12 different countries for the Air Force, served on a base Honor Guard flight, and has earned three Air Force Achievement Medals and two Air Force Commendation medals.

"I was given a second chance for a reason--to inspire others to never give up on their dreams, goals, and aspirations," said Smith. "I want to send a message that the only person that is capable of stopping you, is yourself."

From being given "little chance to live," fighting through a physical and emotional rehab, and facing a medical evaluation board, Smith's passion for his country and his Air Force career pushed him through the darkest of times.

"My love for the Air Force is indescribable--I have the chance to help defend the greatest country in the world," said Smith. "Even though the odds are sometimes unfavorable, staying goal-focused is all it takes to push through and persevere."
Smith now serves as an Aircrew Flight Equipment craftsman, where he is in charge of ensuring all flight equipment is in perfect working order--from flight helmets to oxygen masks. He is also responsible for ensuring all emergency safety equipment and survival kits are ready to go should they be needed.