You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

They were together on a sun-splashed Russian River beach the day Honza Ripa's life took a traumatic turn.

He dove into the green water and found he could not move. His neck was broken and he nearly drowned.

Brianna Angell was there as Healdsburg teens hauled Honza from the river, bringing their post-graduation idyll to a grim end and sending him by helicopter to the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital emergency room.

Throughout his long recovery and rehabilitation at hospitals in Santa Rosa and San Jose, Brianna, 17, stood by Honza and helped raise thousands of dollars for the 6-foot-3 former star golfer who was paralyzed from the neck down in the diving accident 10 months ago.

Honza, 18, a gregarious athlete now adjusting to life in a body that will barely do his bidding, still has Brianna to lean on, literally and figuratively.

The young couple, a lanky blond quadriplegic and a petite brunette, plan to move in together this summer in Santa Rosa and attend classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.

They are in love, they said, and intended to live together eventually. The decision was made about two months ago.

"We figured why not now?" said Honza, who turns 19 on Thursday.4-22

"I was getting older and not wanting to live with my parents anymore," Brianna said.

They met at Healdsburg High in September 2008 and have been together ever since. Honza graduated in May; Brianna graduates June 4, three weeks after she turns 18.

Honza's mother, Katka Ripova, understands their motivation. "Everybody else wants to start their life," she said.

Brianna's mother, Karan Angell of Healdsburg, said she's impressed with the relationship the two have forged through an extraordinary experience. "It's endearing and it's heartwarming," Angell said. "They are the real deal. They've done a lot of growing up in a short time."

Brianna, who's 5-foot-3, is already versed in the chores of tending to a quadriplegic. An electric lift moves Honza from wheelchair to bed and back, and if it doesn't work Brianna knows how to transfer his 160-pound body with a 3-foot-long wooden plank.

"If you do it right, it's really easy and pretty quick, too," she said.

"It's good to live with someone who knows your care the best," Honza said.

His mind and body haven't — and may never — fully adjust to the physical paralysis. A top student with a knack for mathematics at Healdsburg High School, Honza's brain is fine.

He recently beat the chess game on his laptop computer at its highest level, a satisfying victory for a person coping with immense loss.

Golfing in his dreams

In his dreams, Honza can still smack a drive down the middle of a fairway at Tayman Park, the hilly Healdsburg golf links where he developed a love for the game as a boy.

"I still get the feeling I can reach for a glass or reach for a phone," Honza said. The illusion, he figures, is a product of the "muscle memory" of his 18 years as an able-bodied person.

In reality, Honza spends his days strapped into a motorized wheelchair and his nights on a narrow, air-filled mattress that shifts his weight around to stave off bedsores. About 6 a.m. every morning, he needs to be turned in bed, from side to back or back to side, to prevent sores from developing anywhere bones are close to the skin, such as his elbows, tailbone and shoulder blades.

He wears a padded metal brace overnight on each foot to keep pressure off his heels, which are an Achilles-like point of vulnerability for quadriplegics. In bed around 11:30 p.m., Honza is up about 10 a.m. — "pretty much like a teenage boy," his mother said.

Honza needs help with almost every physical act, from eating and opening doors to pulling out his wallet and the intimacies of person hygiene. He lacks control of his bladder and bowels, and lives round-the-clock with a tube through his belly, draining his bladder.

Honza said he was "never a private person" and doesn't mind the indignity. But he's offended — at times despondent — over his relentless dependence on caregivers and loved ones.

"Before, I was really independent," Honza said. "I would work for my money. I never had to ask for anything."

Headlights, turn signals

At the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, the region's top treatment facility for spinal cord injury, Honza learned how to maneuver the $35,000 battery-powered wheelchair that has headlights and turn signals and a seat that can elevate, raising Honza's head once again above Brianna's — "back the way it used to be," she said.

With his right arm strapped to the chair, Honza has just enough control over his right index finger to manipulate the small joy stick that drives the wheelchair.

He can raise his left arm a bit, manipulate his right hand, kick softly with his right leg and twist his neck. His body is otherwise immobile but not insensate. He can feel pain, which Honza said is "never going to go away" and causes some torment.

But the sensitivity also means that some nerve impulses are making it past the 10-month-old spinal cord injury in his neck.

Two vertebrae were fractured in the June 13 diving accident and Honza's spinal cord — running through the neck bones — likely was bruised, resulting in nerve damage.

Spinal cord nerve cells do not often heal well, if at all, and no one knows if Honza will regain more function.

"I want my arms back," he said.

He yearns to go bicycling again, aboard a hand-powered three-wheeler, and to grasp a steering wheel, enabling him to take the driver's seat in his Honda Odyssey minivan modified for handicapped use and now driven by Brianna.

Still reason to hope

"There's still hope," said Dr. Brian Schmidt, trauma medical director at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, who is treating Honza. Paralyzed people can regain nerve function from one to two years after their injury, he said.

It's noteworthy that Honza, who initially had no function below his neck, can now move some arm and leg muscles, Schmidt said. "Now he's home and he has a smile on his face," the surgeon said, after spotting Honza cruising along Fourth Street in his wheelchair.

"I'm rooting for the kid," Schmidt said.

Since his release from the San Jose rehab center last November, Honza and his mother have lived with her boyfriend, Steve Kanzler, who helps run a family-owned vineyard in Sebastopol.

Kanzler's small home in Santa Rosa's Cherry Street neighborhood is, as he said, "disability hostile," with narrow doors and hallways and a temporary plywood ramp over the front steps.

The biggest obstacle to Honza's and Brianna's domestic plans is finding a suitable apartment, ideally a ground-floor unit, affordable, with at least the potential for quadriplegic-friendly modification.

Such a place is "nearly impossible" to find in an already-tight housing market, Kanzler said.

Keeping busy online

Every day, Honza and Brianna scan Craigslist for a possible apartment. A voice-activated laptop computer, placed on a platform attached to his wheelchair, gives Honza an outlet to the world, communicating with friends via Facebook and e-mail.

He hasn't lost his sense of humor, using an e-mail address that begins "crippledgolfer21."

He's taking an SRJC basic firefighting class online and starting to learn about the stock market.

"It's one of the things I could do," he said, regarding career opportunities for a person confined to a wheelchair. He would invest something now, he said, "If I had the money."

Within days of Honza's injury, Brianna began fund-raising for him, including holding a raffle one evening at a Healdsburg Plaza summer concert that raised more than $5,000. In all, more than $100,000 in donations have been funneled into a special-needs trust controlled by a fiduciary, not Honza or his family.

About half of the trust funds paid for the Honda minivan, equipped with a ramp, hydraulics that lower the passenger side of the van and tiedowns for his wheelchair. It also paid for the laptop, and for supplies and equipment Medi-Cal wouldn't cover.

An undocumented immigrant from the Czech Republic, Honza has been granted immigration status that qualified him to receive Medi-Cal benefits for his hospital bills, wheelchair, bed and some therapy. In-Home Supportive Services pays for his caregivers, and the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants provides some money in lieu of government disability.

Headed for SRJC

Money will be tight for the couple, who plan to enroll as full-time SRJC students in the fall. Honza hasn't picked a major; Brianna will study nursing.

The minivan and wheelchair give them considerable mobility. Honza can wheel himself from Kanzler's house to downtown Santa Rosa, and his first outing, back in November, was to see "Avatar" at the movie theater.

In the Academy Award-winning sci-fi flick, a paralyzed war veteran gains astonishing physical prowess in the body of a 10-foot-tall blue alien. Honza said he took comfort from the cinematic suggestion that future technology may bring remarkable opportunities for quadriplegics.

Honza, formerly the Healdsburg High golf team's top player, is already back on the Tayman Park links as an assistant coach, handling the junior varsity squad.

"The team's not playing up to their potential," he said in classic coach's parlance, "but they'll get there."

The last five months have been heart-rending — and physically exhausting — for Ripova, who works as a Healdsburg dental assistant, and Kanzler. "His needs trump every single aspect of life," Kanzler wrote in an online blog at honzaripa.org.

'Tower of strength'

They've had help from friends and relatives, and most of all from Brianna, a "tower of strength and energy," the blog says.

Honza's mood has improved, and should get even better as he and Brianna settle in, they said. "It's what he wants," Kanzler said. "I don't know too many 18-year-olds who want to live with mom and dad."

Karan Angell said she and her husband, Brad, are convinced that the bond is based on love, not obligation. "Most relationships aren't tested," she said. "Theirs is. It's all about love for each other."

Angell said she no longer takes important things in her own life as much for granted as she did before. "We can learn a lot from them," she said.

Honza and Brianna look forward to a June trip to Monterey, where they have tickets for the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Schmidt said he'll take them to a race at Infineon in May or June.

Also coming in June is the first anniversary of Honza's accident, which the couple plans to spend hanging out with the same friends who were at the beach the day everything changed.

Rehab therapists tell quadriplegics that their physical limitations do not define them, that their true identities are in their hearts and minds.

Every visit to the Tayman Park golf course reminds Honza Ripa of the gulf between what he once could do and likely will never do again. But he appears to have assimilated the therapists' message.

"I'm still a person who loves golf, even though I can't swing a club," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.