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Bright future for young couple transformed by Healdsburg diving accident

Brianna Angell cleans up her boyfriend, Honza Ripa, after helping him shave in their Santa Rosa Junior College-neighborhood apartment. Ripa was paralyzed in a diving accident on the Russian River in 2009.

(John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 6:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 10:50 a.m.

Like many young couples, Honza Ripa and Brianna Angell of Santa Rosa look forward to completing their college degrees -- business for him, nursing for her -- getting good jobs, buying a home and starting a family.

What sets them apart is the upcoming fourth anniversary of the event that dramatically changed their lives, binding the former high school sweethearts so tightly together that they refer to one another as husband and wife.

Angell, then 17, was on the beach at a Russian River swimming spot near Healdsburg called Eagle Rock on June 13, 2009, when Ripa dove into the green water and fractured two vertebrae in his neck.

Friends saved Ripa from drowning, but the damage to his spinal cord left the lanky Healdsburg High School golf star mostly paralyzed from the neck down.

Ten days later, Angell helped run a fundraiser for Ripa that raised more than $5,000 at a concert in Healdsburg's Plaza.

They've been together ever since, through good and bad times, the latter including Ripa's bouts with depression, pain from recurring kidney stones and an onset of septic shock that nearly killed him in 2011.

"Every person has their up and down days, whether disabled or not," Ripa said. "You know those (lows) don't last forever."

On a scale of one to 10, Ripa said -- with characteristic optimism -- he would rate his satisfaction with life an 8 or 9.

His biggest worry, he said last week, were the imminent final exams at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he has maintained a B average for the past three years.

Relying on a wheelchair -- a $35,000 battery-powered model with headlights and turn signals -- the blond 6-foot-4 former athlete's mind is sharp while most of his body is immobile. He plays chess online, operates a computer and drives the wheelchair with his right index finger on a small joystick.

Ripa's email address, which begins "crippledgolfer21," represents the triumph of his wit and will over the Titanic-sized iceberg that altered his life.

On Saturday, Ripa, 22, will graduate from SRJC with an associate degree in business, completing the first of his numerous goals. In August, he'll begin studies at Sonoma State University, intent on earning a master's degree in business and finance and then donning a pinstriped suit for work in that field.

The dark gray suit with subtle gray stripes already hangs in the closet of the couple's small, tidy apartment a half-block from the SRJC campus, a five-minute wheelchair commute away.

But Ripa can't do any of it without Angell, 21, his official caregiver, who performs the daily chores of getting him in and out of bed, washing, dressing and feeding him, cooking and cleaning and driving him around in their Honda minivan, modified for wheelchair access.

"Horrible," Ripa said, with a mock rolling of his eyes, regarding the love of his life. "Irreplaceable."

The small flat takes only five minutes to vacuum, and she has enjoyed cooking since childhood, learning steps like fresh pasta preparation from her grandmother, Angell said.

"When he's eating, I have to eat, too," she said. "It's a bite for me and a bite for him."

Neither is surprised that Angell, a 5-foot-3 brunette, has stood by the young man she met at Healdsburg High School in 2008. From the start, Angell said, she knew they would always be friends, at least, and his catastrophic injury changed nothing.

"I knew who he was," she said. "His mind, his spirit. Physically, he was broken but nothing else was. I knew that. I could see it."

"He really is that rock for me," said Angell, who's also studying at SRJC and intends to earn a master's degree in nursing at the UC San Francisco campus in Santa Rosa. "He helps me realize what's really in reach."

Ripa said their mutual affection came naturally. "It's really true when people say 'Sometimes you just know,' " he said.

Karan Angell of Healdsburg said she knew her daughter and Ripa would persevere. "They really were two kids who grew up overnight," she said.

"His handicap isn't important to her," Karan Angell said. "Them being together is."

They are "doing what they would have done" had the tragedy not occurred, she said.

In time, when both have their degrees and jobs -- Ripa in finance or real estate, Angell in a hospital pediatrics or intensive-care ward -- they want to buy a home in Healdsburg and have children.

She'd like three kids. "We'll see," he said.

Right now, they're debating over a dog. Angell yearns for an English Labrador retriever, a breed raised by her godmother. Ripa says they have no room for a dog in the little apartment.

Next month marks the fourth anniversary of the accident at Eagle Rock, a place Ripa cannot reach in a wheelchair and has no interest in revisiting.

Also in June, Ripa will have surgery intended to prevent kidney and bladder infections. Last November, he had major surgery to remove a kidney stone nearly the size of a golf ball.

Kidney and urinary tract problems are common complications resulting from a quadriplegic's sedentary life.

On a brighter note, Sept. 20 will be the fifth anniversary of the couple's first date, which involved golfing.

Ripa watches major golf matches on their 42-inch flat-screen television and is giving Angell and her parents golf lessons on the Bennett Valley course.

"Kind of soothing just to be out there," he said.

In dreams, he still hits a ball straight down the fairway at the Tayman Park course in Healdsburg.

One of his other sporting interests is a rare conflict for the couple.

No, it's not Ripa's support for the Pittsburgh Steelers, conveyed by his black and yellow T-shirt that says: "Pittsburgh: So many rings that it should be a planet," referring to the pro football team's record number of Super Bowl rings.

Rather, it's the dark blue New York Yankees baseball cap on his head.

"I don't approve of that," Angell said. "I'm a Giants fan."

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

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