Ryan Diviney (born September 21, 1989) is a former West Virginia University (WVU) student who existed in a vegetative state due to a violent assault that took place during the early morning hours of November 7, 2009.
Ryan succumbed to his injuries on August 31, 2019, nearly a decade after the attack.
His life gained national attention in the United States, and worldwide, for the brutality of the attack, the ensuing behavior of the attackers (and their famlies), innovation in brain injury treatment, and several landmark rulings in the country’s Federal Courts.
Ryan Diviney was born on September 21, 1989 in Reston, VA. Described by many as the “All-American Boy,” he had a passion for sports, women, and dogs.
As a high school student, Ryan was elected and won Homecoming Court to represent his class as an underclassman at Broad Run High School (Ashburn, VA). A gifted athlete, he played both baseball (named to the Top 50 prospects in the state of Virginia in just his sophomore year) and football. Ryan was the first in the 45-year history of the school to make the baseball All-District team three consecutive years. In a Dedication ceremony in May 2019, his jersey number was retired and a plaque was permenently affixed to the fields press box.
In the fall of 2008, Ryan began attending West Virginia University on a partial academic scholarship. At the time of his injury, Ryan was a sophomore with a 3.81 grade point average. During his first semester attending, he achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average and was placed on the President’s List. He planned to enter a career as either a Judge or Senator after graduation.
He has a younger sister, Kari, who began attending WVU in the fall of 2010. She achieved her undergraduate degree in 2015, whereupon she began a teaching career for special needs students… inspired by Ryan’s struggles. Kari earned her Masters in Education from George Mason University in December 2019.
Assault and Brain Injury
Just after 3 a.m. on November 7, 2009, Ryan and two others were walking to a convenience store adjacent to the WVU campus when they encountered a larger group. Words were exchanged regarding the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, and the conversation quickly became heated. Ryan was pushed and began walking backward, hands raised, to get away. Both of Ryan’s companions were assaulted; one of them, Bryan McLhinney, was rendered unconscious, his jaw broken.
As Ryan backed away, some from the larger group ran him down. WVU student Jonathon May approached from Ryan’s blind side and punched him in the face, knocking him unconscious. The punch lifted Ryan off his feet and he struck his head on a raised grate when he fell, causing damage to his brain stem and frontal lobes. At this point, 19-year-old Austin Vantrease, visiting from Newark, Delaware, approached Ryan and kicked the unconscious man in the head as if he were “punting a football,” according to witness testimony. May, Vantrease and the others from the larger group then ran, hiding briefly behind a dumpster before fleeing the scene. When paramedics arrived, Ryan was bleeding from the ears and suffering seizures. His breathing was shallow, slow, and labored.
Much of the encounter was captured on the convenience store’s video surveillance, which showed Ryan trying to escape.
Ryan suffered a fractured skull, a broken jaw, and bleeding of the brain. At Ruby Memorial hospital (Morgantown, WV), Ryan’s parents, Ken and Sue, were told that Ryan’s only chance of survival involved the removal of a portion of skull, approximately one-third, to allow for brain swelling. They consented to this procedure even as a priest was summoned to administer last rites. Ryan’s chances of surviving this operation were less than 50 percent. Ryan was also given only a slight chance of surviving the next three days, as his brain continued to swell.
Ryan barely survived, though his life in the first year after the attack remained tenuous as he endured repeated life-threatening episodes of neurological storming (also called “brain storming”) for 12 to 18 hours a day. His core body temperature swung below 92 degrees and as high as 109.8. His heart stopped twice, and he endured nine surgeries. As he no longer could blink, his eyes were sewn shut to prevent further damage; a procedure called Tarsorraphy. He was cared for at home, full-time, by his father in Ashburn, Virginia.
Ryan’s assailants, Jonathon Matthew May and Austin Issac Vantrease, both of Newark, Delaware, were arrested within weeks of the attack. Neither had stepped forward to claim responsibility and a manhunt by the Morgantown Police Detectives led to their capture in their hometown of Newark, Delaware, where each posted $75,000 bond.
In July, 2010, both were criminally convicted in West Virginia State Court. May was convicted of misdemeanor battery and sentenced to a year in jail; he served 7 months of the sentence. Vantrease was convicted of felony malicious assault and sentenced to 2 – 10 years, with a chance for parole after two years. He was been denied parole twice, in 2012 and 2013. An online petition to deny Vantrease’s July 2013 parole was signed by nearly 30,000 within a week, and ultimately received more than 156,000 signatures. When asked at his 2013 parole hearing why he kicked a clearly unconscious man in the head, Vantrease answered that he did not know. Through 2012 and 2014, Vantrease was incarcerated at Huttonsville Correctional Center and at the St. Mary’s Correctional Center in West Virginia; which is for the custody, control and care of adult male felons who have been convicted of severe crimes against man or nature.
Vantrease was release on parole in July 2014, after serving just four years. He was released under his parent’s supervision and currently resides i Delaware. Though the Criminal Court has ordered both May and Vantrease to pay approximately $102,000 in criminal restitution, they contributed just $125 in the first four years.Ken Diviney filed civil suit on Ryan’s behalf; Diviney and McLhinney v. Vantrease, May, et al. Judge Irene Keeley, maneuvered to settle the suit in what was suggested as misuse of judicial authority. It was not only absent the Diviney’s consent, but they strongly opposed to it. The judgement was for an undisclosed (court sealed) amount that was described by Ryan’s father as “pennies on the dollar… that fell pennies short to be exchanged for a single nickel.”
The civil case, in United States Federal Court, did result in two landmark rulings:
The Constitutional right to freedom of expression. A Vantrease’s motion was defeated to place a restraining order the website, ryansrally.org. Website and blog owners hailed this as a major victory.
That tangible, non-tangible, and financial donations made to a victim may not be used to offset or reduce a defendant’s financial liability awarded to the plaintiff.
Daily care for Ryan involved hygiene, feeding through a tube, physical therapy, vibration therapy, tactile and sensation therapy, electrical stimulation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT), oral care, bowel and urine protocols, and the administration of dozens of medications and supplements, among others. Though he showed no clear signs of consciousness since his injury, Ryan’s family talked to him in positive tones, in the hope that some part of him could understand.
Many aspects of Ryan’s therapy was considered groundbreaking for those who suffer Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He is recognized as the first with the extreme brain injury, known as Severe Disorders of Consciousness, to employ functional electrical stimulation (FES) exercises that trigger the muscles, albeit involuntarily, to engage in resistance training. Ryan was also the first confirmed person to use a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in his extreme condition.
The cost of Ryan’s care, comfort, and treatment is roughly $2 million annually. The Divineys had private health insurance that helped cover some of this expense, but a significant amount of the financial burden was not covered because brain injury treatment and recovery is mostly unknown and considered “experimental.”
According to medical experts at the time of the initial injury, the odds of Ryan ever regaining consciousness were only between ten and twenty percent, and with each passing year since the injury those odds were greatly reduced. Even if that would have occured, Ryan would have likely remained at a diminished capacity. The average life expectancy for someone in a vegetative state is between eight to ten years. All aspects of Ryan’s care and treatment were overseen by his father, Ken. The Diviney family maintains a popular opinion-based web site, Ryansrally.org (owned by Ryan’s Rally LLC), that provided regular updates on Ryan’s status, a blog, solicitation of donations, upcoming events, and other information. This website and all other social media continues after his death.
Storming: The Ryan Diviney Story
The official movie trailer (2:20 run time) for the documentary on Ryan. It gives a look into the challenges faced by those with TBI, the communities that surround them, and those who care for them. With supporting narratives from family, medical experts, friends, and others, the audience will follow the Divineys’ tenacious fight to maintain Ryan’s health as the clock ticks toward an unlikely recovery while his attackers live free. After nearly 10 years of fulfilling a promise to their son, they struggle to answer the ultimate question: Have they done all they can?