Ahwatukee Foothills residents Bob and Johanna Ricketts were but five minutes from heading out the door on their way to a weekend retreat when Bob decided to answer one last incoming phone call.
U.S. Army Capt. Jason Ambrisino was calling to report the news that their son, Sgt. John Ricketts, was severely injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion. He was to be transferred to Bagram, Afghanistan, to receive medical care for his bilateral leg and foot fractures. Needless to say, the Ricketts' weekend plans changed, as did their current reality.
John Ricketts, a 25-year-old Ahwatukee resident, graduated from Mountain Pointe High School in 2004. He worked in Germany as an Army medic, and then graduated as a scout, but was most recently a gunner for the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. On May 28, during a routine convoy patrol of a mountainside his vehicle was blown up, flipped, and rolled into a ravine.
"John was tossed like a sock in a dryer," said his mother, Johanna. Luckily, he fell into the vehicle, yet Ricketts did suffer the most severe injuries of all the soldiers. Doctors diagnosed him as having muscular and skeletal damage only, but in actuality he had a diffuse axonal injury - severe brain damage.
Johanna thanks God that the brain injury was at first undetected: "I wouldn't have been able to handle everything all at once, it was just too much."
Ricketts was treated for his leg wounds in Afghanistan. Four days later, he was flown to Germany with a specially imported pulmonologist team. Held in Germany for three days and many surgeries, he was eventually transported to Walter Reed Veterans Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was re-united with his parents.
"There are no words that could describe our gratitude and emotions upon seeing John. In spite of everything he looked beautiful to me. Obviously, with him still on the ventilator, he wasn't able to speak or respond." His mother was elated to finally see her son after a week of waiting. The more the Ricketts learned of the accident, the more they realized it was a miracle all four soldiers survived.
After spending almost three days with their son, he had not yet responded to his doctors or his parents. Johanna said, "I hoped deep down there he may have heard us, recognized our voices and experienced our presence."
The reason Ricketts' brain injuries went undetected was the heavy sedation doctors maintained since the time of the accident until after surgeries at Walter Reed. At first doctors claimed his unresponsive behavior was due to the medications; however, time continued and Ricketts did not resurface. Brain scans discovered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The diagnosis of a diffuse axonal injury (DAI) was grim. The Ricketts were informed that 90 percent of severe DAI patients remain unconscious, and the other 10 percent who regain consciousness are generally severely impaired. With this news, the best plan was to transfer Ricketts to a Polytrauma Center in Palo Alto, Calif.; here his physical and mental needs could be met.
Four weeks after Ricketts' injury, he was flown to California, with external fixators in both legs, pins in both heels, a tracheostomy tube and a feeding tube. After one week at Palo Alto, Ricketts' condition improved markedly. He recovered from a semi-vegetative state, became aware of his surroundings, responded to both commands and people, and regained movement in his body parts.
"To hear him say, ‘Hi mom,' when I walked into his room nearly took my breath away," Johanna said. "All I could do was weep, tears of joy and gratitude."
Every day Ricketts continued to make progress both mentally and physically. There were times he experienced mood swings and frustration, but overall has been a cheerful patient who has not expressed bitterness toward his situation. He recently shared with his mother that he was glad he was the one hurt and not another soldier in his platoon. Although Ricketts has exceeded everyone's expectations for recovery, he still has a long road ahead of him.
"He will need more physical therapy and possibly more surgeries; cognitively he has some trouble with higher functioning skills and abstract thinking," Johanna said.
Ricketts has been working hard the past few months, practicing walking and relearning the basic functions of life. He always says, "I've got to do what it takes." And his work has paid off, for he has now graduated to a new polytrauma rehabilitation program in Palo Alto where he lives in a dorm setting and works on community integration and self- sufficiency. His parents have traveled back to Arizona, and now communicate with him by phone.
"We are not sure what the future holds for John, he may or may not need a wheelchair forever, but he does know that God saved his life for a specific reason, and he wants to figure out what that purpose is," Johanna said. Her excitement was evident as she noted that her most immediate desire was for her son to return home for the upcoming holidays.
Ricketts has been presented with a Purple Heart and visited by Sen. John McCain for his service to America.
But there are no medals for mothers like Johanna Ricketts. Their reward is found in the first word uttered or first step taken by a son or daughter injured in war.
Amanda Petersen is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a senior at Horizon Honors High School.