Atrium Health Levine Children’s Helps Young Soccer Player Pursue His Paralympic Dreams

Child Health, Primary Care, Your Health | one year ago

Atrium Health Levine Children’s Helps Young Soccer Player Pursue His Paralympic Dreams

Meet Ryan Wlodyka, a 13-year-old soccer player who isn’t letting cerebral palsy keep him from pursuing his dreams of playing for a national team. Ryan served as the honorary captain for the Charlotte Football Club’s match on July 30, 2022. Find out how Atrium Health Levine Children’s has supported Ryan every step of the way and learn how he’s inspired his siblings to pursue careers in nursing.

Many children dream of a professional sports career. But only a few make it. Even smaller are the number of athletes with special needs or disabilities who get a chance to play for a professional team.  

Ryan Wlodyka, 13-year-old Atrium Health Levine Children's patient, serves as the honorary captain for a Charlotte Football Club game.
Ryan Wlodyka, 13-year-old Atrium Health Levine Children's patient, serves as the honorary captain for a Charlotte Football Club game.

That’s what’s so unique about Ryan Wlodyka, a 13-year-old soccer player from Charlotte. As the youngest of Neil and Amy Wlodyka’s four children, Ryan has dealt with physical delays and mobility issues since he was born prematurely. While coping with cerebral palsy, Ryan has become an outstanding athlete and is training to become a Paralympian.

The secret to his success? Ongoing support from his Atrium Health Levine Children’s care team and his devoted family. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s completely dedicated to the sport. 

Ryan and his family are thrilled that he served as the honorary captain for the Charlotte Football Club’s match on July 30, 2022, where he was recognized on the field prior to the match. 

Ryan is part of CP Soccer, a team started by the United States Soccer Federation’s national program for the physically disabled. Ryan and his family are hopeful about the opportunity for him to play for the U.S. National Paralympic Team once he’s a bit older. 

In January 2022, Ryan went to Florida for an invitation-only CP Soccer National Training Camp. He was the youngest-and one of the most talented- players among the 20 children who were invited. 

Physical delays, early treatments

Atrium Health Levine Children's patient Ryan Wlodyka in the NICU as a baby.
Ryan Wlodyka in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as a baby.

Despite an otherwise healthy pregnancy, Ryan arrived early at just 28 weeks, weighing only 2 pounds, 12 ounces at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center. He suffered a brain bleed that his doctors feel happened in utero that caused cerebral palsy. He spent 44 days in the NICU at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital before going home to meet his siblings.

Ryan’s condition caused physical delays in his development. He suffers from muscle spasticity, which means that his muscles tend to tighten up. When he was younger, he couldn’t put his heels down, so running was challenging. And he would posture his hands up when they got tight. 

To increase his mobility, he’s had various therapies and surgery. At age 2, his physical therapist started Botox injections in his legs as well as physical therapy. At age 5, Ryan had heel cord surgery. “He had both feet in casts for eight weeks,” said Neil. “But he didn’t know any different – he just went with it. We’ve got video of him with both feet in casts still kicking a soccer ball.”

Personalized, compassionate care

Ryan’s care team has been supporting the Wlodyka family from the beginning. For example, (now retired) neonatologist Chuck Engstrom, MD, and Andrew Herman, MD, neonatologist and now chief medical officer with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital, helped alleviate much of the family’s anxiety in the hospital. Engstrom delivered Ryan and supported the family throughout their stay. Herman eased the family’s anxiety the night they found out Ryan had a brain bleed. 

When it was time to leave the hospital, the NICU nurses advised Amy and Neil to take everything that they offered, including home health nursing and evaluations, and decide later if they didn’t need it. “That was probably one of the best pieces of advice we received,” explained Amy. “It wasn’t until Ryan was 18 months old that we could identify true problems with his mobility. Since we were already part of home health services, we were able to get a physical therapist in our home only one week later.”

The Wlodyka family also relied on the support of Ryan’s nursing team, pediatrician and eye doctor- all who had the experience in caring for premature babies and the compassion to help the family navigate this time in their lives. 

“We were so fortunate to have all these individuals on our son’s care team,” Neil added. “They all played an important role in helping us through this uncertain time in our life. We could not have made it without them.”

Sibling success

Ryan Wlodyka, 13-year-old Atrium Health Levine Children's patient, with his siblings.
Ryan Wlodyka (far right) with his siblings, Mary (far left), Sam (center left) and Jack (center right).

It was Ryan’s brothers’ dedication to high-level competitive soccer that inspired him to get involved in the sport. “He’s been on the field with us since a few weeks after he came home from the hospital,” said Neil. “He knows the game very well. He went to every one of Jack’s games – both home and away – the whole time he was in college.”

“It’s what Jack and Sam did, so why don’t I do it too?” Ryan said. “We fell in love with soccer as a family, and now it’s what I love to do.”

Ryan’s health journey, in turn, has inspired his siblings in their careers. Jack, Sam, and his sister Mary all graduated with their bachelor’s degrees in nursing within only five days of each other. Plus, they all passed their national boards and had nursing jobs lined up when they graduated.  

Mary is now working as a NICU nurse at Levine Children’s- the very same unit in which her baby brother spent the first days of his life. “As I was growing up and learning about what Ryan was going through, I was always interested in becoming part of the team that helps families like ours,” she explained. “It was an incredibly stressful time for our family, and I want to help these families by getting their babies home safely. They’re so small and can’t advocate for themselves.”

Jack, a pediatric nurse at Levine Children’s, echoes his sister’s feelings. “I know the difference the nurses made for our family when there was so much uncertainty,” he said. “If I can give that back to another family in a similar situation – I want to do it. Ryan, thank you for giving us inspiration for our careers.”

Neil, an assistant vice president at Atrium Health who works in the finance department, finds it “overwhelming at times” to think about the impact his family is having on patient care. “To have three kids on the clinical side is unbelievable. What I do on the back end to help patients and be their advocate – that’s what my kids want to do too.”

Looking ahead

Ryan’s family feels very fortunate that cerebral palsy and asthma are the only health issues he copes with. His physical therapist and pediatrician have given him recommendations for stretches that help with his mobility and performance on the field. He may need another heel cord surgery in the future.

For now, Ryan is staying focused on his game. “For a 13-year-old kid, he’s pretty rigid in his schedule and does a lot on his own, including making his bed each morning,” Amy said. “He’s got the Para National game in front of him, so he’s constantly training and exercising to prepare. Each day, he either goes to the soccer field to practice or goes on a run.”

As the honorary captain for the Charlotte Football Club’s match, Ryan felt one step closer to his dreams, and it was a moment that reinforced to his siblings that with the right team of nurses supporting a patient, anything is possible!

Learn more  

Learn more about the personalized pediatric care at Levine Children’s.