If you’ve ever shopped at Macey’s grocery store in Tooele, chances are you’ve met front-end employee Ryan Giles. And if you’ve met Ryan Giles, chances are you remember him. It’s not his 6-foot-2-inch frame you recall, or his Pittsburgh Steelers watch or his name tag that reads “Jackson.” No, chances are you remember, vividly, his beaming, unprejudiced smile.
Unless you knew him growing up, you’ve likely never heard Ryan speak. In fact, Ryan, 34, hasn’t spoken a full sentence since the car accident in 1996 that left the high school soccer star severely disabled. But considering the injuries he eventually recovered from — the broken bones, the collapsed lung, cerebral swelling, complications from three brain surgeries and an extended coma — the loss of speech doesn’t seem so major. In fact, spend a few minutes with Ryan and you’d probably agree that communication is one of his greater strengths.
“He just has this outer glow that draws people in,” said Ryan’s father, Jack Giles at Macey’s last Friday. “A couple people have called Ryan a PR guy for Macey’s.”
This year marks Ryan’s 10-year anniversary as the unofficial PR guy for Macey’s. His official duties range from cart management to packaging maintenance. Unofficial titles, according to several of his co-workers, include morale officer and store tease.
Ryan has a wiry build with a youthful gait and contemplative eyes. The tone of his ever-present smile is generous by default, but switches seamlessly to jest when the situation warrants it. When you greet him, he extends his left arm for a firm handshake. He communicates using a combination of hand gestures, non-verbal vocalizations, and phrases written on a piece of paper he keeps in his pocket. Ryan enjoys interaction, especially on the subjects of the Pittsburgh Steelers or the 1964 Chevy Nova in his garage. Although he has gone by his middle name, Ryan, all his life, at Macey’s he’s chosen to go by his first name Jackson.
For Jack and Pamela Giles, the fact that their son is healthy, happy and celebrating his 10th anniversary with an employer is nothing short of a miracle. It was 17 years ago last month that Ryan, then a senior at Tooele High School, waved goodbye to his mother as he caught a ride to soccer practice in Woods Cross with teammate Spencer Parrott.
The collision happened in an intersection on Redwood Road near Woods Cross. Spencer had been waiting to make a left turn when another car barreled into the driver’s side. Spencer was killed on impact. Ryan survived, barely, and his injuries were serious enough that doctors at the University of Utah Medical Center asked his parents to consider organ donation. Even if he made it through the first 72 hours, they said, the outlook was grim. But after Ryan was given an LDS blessing, Jack and Pamela said they knew that he would live, but that his recovery would be an extended uphill battle.
After four months in the hospital, multiple brain surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation, Ryan remained in a Level 5 coma. In this state he could sit up and walk, but very little else. However, glimmers of hope kept arising. One of the first came about two months into the ordeal, when Pamela took Ryan’s hand and he responded with a multi-step “homie” handshake. The next came a month later during a hospital church service when, after a long period of completely refusing food, Ryan reached out and took the sacrament.
“He had been orally defensive,” Pamela explained. “He would not eat anything, didn’t want anything to touch his mouth. After he took the sacrament, I ran to every vending machine I could find and bought stuff.”
Pamela still treasures Ryan’s last words to her before the accident.
“I had been cleaning house all day and he was in a hurry,” She recalled. “As he left he turned around and said, ‘I love you.’”
Ryan gradually came out of the coma and began using his own version of sign language to help him express his thoughts.
“I always say, don’t get me into a game of charades,” said Pamela. “Because I’ll win every time.”
As his recovery continued, Tom Parker, owner of the gas station in Tooele where Ryan had worked prior to the accident, re-hired him as an attendant. He worked there for a short time until the gas station was sold and he was laid off by the new owner. Ryan then took a custodial job at Shiloh Inn in Salt Lake City, commuting by bus until 2001. Macey’s hired Ryan in 2003. Since then, the store has become the center of his social life and a source of personal fulfillment.
“He’s always here; he’s always on time. He knows everybody, and he always waves,” said Jolene Thurgood, Ryan’s manager.
Ryan’s friends at work said they’ve been around him long enough to know what he’s saying to them.
“He’s a good teaser,” quipped co-worker Meagan Pruden as she and Ryan bantered about his anniversary in the produce section last Friday. “And a good worker. Everyone loves Jackson.”
Another co-worker, Diane Sheets, echoed Pruden about Ryan’s love for good-natured teasing and conversation.
“He talks about his brother going on a [LDS] mission to New York, going to Idaho with his family, his two autographed photos of Terry Bradshaw,” Sheets said.
The famed former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers is a recurring theme in Ryan’s conversations, and he’s not shy about his fanaticism for Bradshaw and the Steelers with everybody he meets. Jack Giles recounted a phone call he got one day from the store to tell him somebody had left Ryan a Hines Ward Steelers jersey.
“They said this big guy came in, driving a real fancy car, and said he wanted Ryan to have this,” Jack said.
During their conversation near the end of his shift, Ryan bragged to Pruden (as she said he often does) about his Terry Bradshaw photos. She countered with the fact that she’s actually met the man. The riffing continued until it was time for Ryan to clock out. During the warm months, he insists on walking home. Pamela speculates that it’s so he can stop and socialize along the way.
“I don’t realize how many people know him until I go in a place with him and people say, ‘Oh, you’re Jackson’s mom.’”
Before leaving for the day, Ryan unfolded the paper he uses to remember things and communicate ideas. Both sides were peppered with phrases, names, and dates. “TERRY BRADSHAW” appears prominently on one side, along with Pamela’s birthday and a reminder to buy Dr. Pepper at Go-Fer Foods.
When asked what he’d like to say to Transcript-Bulletin readers, Ryan asked for time to think about it and later responded with two items: He’d like to thank Macey’s and he wants everybody to know that he’s still the same guy he was before the accident.
Ryan ended therapy about three years ago. Pamela credits his incredible recovery in part to the support of friends and family, especially his sister Mikal and brothers Marcel, Chad and Tyson. In the time since Ryan asked to go by Jackson at work, Chad has had a son and named him Jackson.
“Ryan has touched a lot of lives,” said his close friend from childhood, Scott Rounds. “He’s always smiling, always happy. I haven’t seen him upset or mad since the accident.”
Rounds’ latter point was echoed, independently, by both Jack and Pamela. Ryan discusses the accident frankly, but without any detectable frustration at the incident or the result — as if the experience has given him some unknown, uncommunicable big-picture perspective.
During the initial months of Ryan’s struggle, Pamela had hoped for a full recovery. But today she’s found a new perspective.
“We’ve talked a lot about how we lost the old Ryan,” she said, “but by the same token we’re in love with the Ryan we have. We’re very blessed.”