Sports

Remembering Ryan

Kirsten Donaldson (centre) and her parents, Doug and Dana, are organizing the Ryan Donaldson Memorial Hockey Tournament this June. The tournament is in honour of Ryan (pictured), who committed suicide last February. - submitted photo
Kirsten Donaldson (centre) and her parents, Doug and Dana, are organizing the Ryan Donaldson Memorial Hockey Tournament this June. The tournament is in honour of Ryan (pictured), who committed suicide last February.
— image credit: submitted photo

The tweet read #BellLetsTalk.

It was a reference to a social media movement that aims to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and promote awareness and understanding.

Ryan Donaldson had tweeted it last January as part of the Bell Let’s Talk Mental Health Initiative.

“He knew the importance of talking about it, but still wasn’t comfortable doing it,” recalled his older sister, Kirsten.

A few days later, Feb. 6, 2014, Ryan Donaldson attempted to take his own life.

He was rushed to the hospital and spent the next nine days in the Intensive Care Unit at Royal Columbian Hospital.

Medical intervention could not save him, and his family took him off life support on Feb. 15.

He was 17 years old and left behind his parents and older siblings Kirsten, Shelley and Dave.

•••

Ryan Donaldson was always an active kid.

“It was go, go, go all the time,” recalled his mom, Dana.

“Never sat still. He wasn’t the typical kid to sit and play with Lego or blocks. It was ‘I am going to dig a hole in the backyard, or play with these trucks.’”

He also loved the feeling of being on skates.

“As soon as he could walk, he put on his sister’s roller skates,” Dana said.

So it was no surprise that Ryan gravitated towards hockey.

He first played inline hockey when he was five years old, with the Westcoast Warriors program out of the Langley Sportsplex. A few years later, he gave ice hockey a try.

He was talented at both games.

“He got into it and was just an incredible talent,” said his father, Doug.

“And he had the softest hands.

“(But) he worked hard at it, spending hours and hours practising.”

Ryan was an elite level inline hockey player, representing Canada on the international stage and helping his country win bronze in 2013. There were countless other competitions where he represented either the Fraser Valley at the B.C. Summer Games — helping win gold in 2010 — as well as on provincial teams.

He also showed talent on the ice, playing rep at every level through the ranks of the Langley Minor Hockey Association. His progression culminated with the Kelowna Rockets selecting Donaldson in the fifth round of the 2011 WHL bantam draft.

He was the top Langley player taken in that draft and signed with the Rockets, playing a pair of games for the major junior team in the 2011/12 season as an under-age player.

•••

The family believes he had three major concussions — which required hospitalization — as well as a few others.

The first was in November 2011 and the last happened in October 2013, while he was in Summerland playing junior B hockey.

After spending a night in hospital, Donaldson stayed in Summerland for two weeks before coming back to Langley.

“He came home, but he just wasn’t the same kid,” Doug said.

“He was really irritable, always angry,” Kirsten added. “Anything would set him off.”

Kirsten, three years older than Ryan, also noticed a change in his sleeping habits. She would get up for work in the morning and he would still be awake, sleeping during the days. She also noticed Ryan was much more emotional.

“He wasn’t the type who ever showed emotion,” she said.

“When you talked to him, all off a sudden, there would be a glaze,” Doug said. “He would just shut right off and he wasn’t doing it on purpose. You would have to snap him out of it.”

The family knew something was not right, but every time they approached him to see if he wanted to speak to someone, Ryan would decline.

Over the next couple of months, Ryan’s mood and behaviour would be up and down, with good days and bad. He was attending Langley Education Centre for his Grade 12 year with different hours than the traditional school system.

The week leading up to his suicide, Ryan kept to himself, stayed in his room and didn’t do a whole lot. The day he took his own life, he had texted a few people to see if they wanted to hang out.

Looking through his messages on his phone afterwards, one ominous text asked a friend to go to the gym with him so he ‘could work off some steam.’

They were all in school and could not come over.

•••

Kirsten, a nursing student at Douglas College, has been doing research on concussions and depression.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head, or anything that shakes the brain inside the skull. A person does not have to lose consciousness to have suffered a concussion.

Normally, the fluid around the brain acts like a cushion to keep the brain from banging into the skull, but if there is enough impact, the brain can crash into the skull and cause damage.

More and more studies and stories are discussing the link between Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and depression.

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, found in those with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions and hits to the head.

The Donaldsons are sure this was the case with Ryan.

“Concussions and even simple brain shaking cause changes in the brain that cause the sufferer to lose control over their impulses,” explained Dana.

“Basically, they make impulsive decisions. That is what Ryan did, he made an impulsive life-ending decision.

“That was not him and all his many friends need to know it was the brain injury that caused his death.

“Anyone who knew him knows he was full of life and positive.”

The family’s goal is to make sure no one else goes through what they have experienced in the past year.

“One of the biggest things for us is that we have come to realize with concussions, if we could go back, we would change exactly how we dealt with Ryan,” Doug said.

“Once a player has had one concussion, they know what the questions are and how they are going to answer them so they can get back in the game,” he said.

“With the baseline test, you can take that away from a player.”

A baseline test is an exam conducted by a trained health care professional and is used to assess an athlete’s balance and brain function, including learning and memory skills, ability to pay attention or concentrate and how quickly they can solve problems.

Results from the test can then by used to compare after a similar exam conducted during the season if an athlete has a suspected concussion.

Any differences between the two tests can then be used to assist the health care professionals in assessing the situation and determining when or if an athlete can return to competition.

•••

The family is organizing the first annual Ryan Donaldson Memorial Hockey Tournament for June 13 and 14 at the Sportsplex.

The jamboree-style tournament allows individual players to register, with teams drafted afterwards.

Proceeds from the tournament will be used to give players a chance to do the baseline test as well as setting up a trust fund for families who may need help in accessing post-concussion treatment.

“We want to change the protocol … make the baseline test mandatory, so that if a player does suffer a concussion, the choice is taken away from the player and the parent and it is a medical clearance instead of the kid saying they are OK,” Doug said.

After Ryan’s passing, Dana said they found out the month before his suicide, Ryan was living on Advil and Tylenol pills.

“His headaches were that bad (but) he didn’t want to tell us because he wanted to go back and play hockey,” she said.

Parents may think this will never happen to their child, but the Donaldsons want to warn them that is what they used to think as well.

“Looking back, I could see the signs and changes like moodiness, but just chalked it up to being teenaged,” Doug said.

“Trust us, if I knew then what I know now about concussions, I would have shut him down (from playing).”

The family wants to let others know that it is OK to talk about depression.

“Way too many people suffer in silence for fear of judgment or discrimination because of the stigma,” Kirsten said.

“Let’s share our stories, get help for those who need it.

“Remember you are not alone in your suffering and there are so many people who love you unconditionally.

“Depression is a disease of the mind, a disease you can’t control, a disease you didn’t chose.”

The tournament is also a way for the family to say thanks to all those who supported them, and continue to support them.

•••

When the family made the decision to pull Ryan off life support, they donated his organs.

“We figured he was such a giving kid, this is what he would have wanted to do,” Dana said.

Doug still recalls when Ryan got his learner’s licence, asking if he was allowed to sign up to be an organ donor but being told he had to wait until he got his full licence.

•••

A website www.ryandonaldsonmemorial.ca has been launched and the family is  looking for businesses that may want to get involved as well as chiropractors and doctors who can help with the baseline testing.

To contact them, email ryandonaldsonmemorial@gmail.com.

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