Grit, teamwork boost this sibling duo at Framingham State
FRAMINGHAM — It could be a college classroom anywhere. Well-worn wooden floorboards beneath the glare of fluorescent lighting. Students, clad in plaid flannel and logo-festooned sweat shirts, hunched over impossibly small laptops.
An enthusiastic instructor poking an old blackboard with a small piece of white chalk, earnestly drawing out his undergraduates.
But what is happening in the second row of this well-heated classroom on the first floor of May Hall, a handsome red-brick building in the center of Framingham State University, is extraordinary.
Two brothers sit side by side. Both of them have been here before. Now, against all odds, both are back. They could teach a class of their own. About courage.
Matt Rijk, 33, furiously scribbles notes for his 31-year-old brother, Johan, who leans into the discussion about global politics and anarchy and the Byzantine behavior of superpowers.
“What do states want?’’ asks lecturer Evan McCormick, who holds a doctoral degree in history from the University of Virginia.
“Power,’’ Johan Rijk answers immediately.
“Excellent,’’ McCormick tells him.
If the 20 other students are aware of the power of that simple exchange — the payload contained in that one-word answer — they scarcely show it.
And why should they? To them, Johan Rijk is just another student, absorbing the material, synthesizing the data, following the syllabus.
And that’s what he is: just another student.
He’s also this: A traveler on an improbable journey. A survivor of a stroke that nearly killed him in 2010. A young man, whose right-side paralysis is being doggedly met with therapy, rehabilitation, uncommon determination — and unbreakable family ties.
“All I want to do is live,’’ Johan Rijk told me the other day. “Maybe one day have a family. I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward. I’m looking into the future, not the past.’’
For a time, that past was a model of suburban life. Lacrosse games. Ski trips to Loon Mountain. Lazy summer nights in Small Town USA.
The events that were to forever rearrange the life of Johan Rijk unfolded, at first, routinely.
In October 2010, as a Framingham State junior, he had been at a party. When he returned to his home near Wayland’s center, he complained about a sore back. He had trouble walking.
“I noticed that he had some infection on his leg,’’ his mother, Louise Rijk, told me as we sat at the family kitchen table in Wayland. “I said to the nurse practitioner, ‘This kid’s never had a pimple in his life.’ He was a completely healthy kid. I said, ‘Something’s going on here.’ They thought his back hurt because his backpack was too heavy.’’
His health worsened. He couldn’t walk. A blood test detected a staph infection that raged through his body. Then a massive stroke led to right-side paralysis.
“They didn’t give us much hope,’’ said Joop Rijk, his father. “The only thing he could move was his arm. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t count. He couldn’t move. We thought he was going to die.’’
So did Johan. “I was basically waiting to die,’’ he said.
But he was 23 years old. He was strong. And so was his family. And so he lived. He embraced speech therapy. Long stints of physical therapy. Bouts of anger.
He became part of the Aphasia Community Group at Boston University’s Sargent College, a linchpin in his recovery, in his efforts to battle the isolation that often accompanies aphasia, an impairment in the ability to understand or express speech because of brain damage caused by stroke, injury, or neurological disease.
“I was mad about what went wrong,’’ Johan said. “I would think: Why, God? What would the rest of the world think of me?’’
Jerry Kaplan, who leads the Aphasia Community Group, said the Rijk family story is a heroic one of love and determination.
“I’m humbled by his spirit,’’ Kaplan said. “I’m inspired by his determination and that of the family which came together to help him. When he first came in, he was understandably a very angry young man. His aphasia was quite significant. When I think about myself complaining about my aches and pains, I sometimes think: ‘Shut up!’
“Imagine being in your 20s and waking up one morning to find half your body paralyzed and you can’t talk? Give me a break. Johan’s a hero.’’
That’s precisely how Matt Rijk sees it. He graduated from Framingham State in 2009 and is now back as his brother’s academic teammate, helping Johan with reading, writing papers, and digesting class material.
The brothers are roommates now. They live in a place not far from the Framingham campus. Matt’s the driver. Matt’s the guy who puts Johan’s leg brace on at night.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress,’’ Matt Rijk said, sitting at that kitchen table next to his brother. “We’re very lucky to be where we are right now. There could be so many other outcomes. Some people don’t recover to the point where Jo’s gotten.
“He’s going to the gym all the time,’’ he said, before turning to his brother: “You used to be a really social guy so that’s one thing that really gets him. . . . That’s one thing he’s working on is having more social stuff.’’
He’s also working on academics again.
LaDonna Bridges, Framingham State’s dean of academic success, said the curriculum is not modified for him. He can have help. His brother can be at his side. But the work must be his own.
“He’s done everything that we have wanted him to do,’’ Bridges said. “He’s expected to do what every other student does. And I think he expects that of himself.’’
“The greater good,’’ he said. “I want to make a difference in people’s lives. Each semester, I’m doing it.’’
He’s looking ahead. He’s taking it step by step.
Some of those steps lead to the front door of May Hall, where Matt Rijk held the door for his brother the other afternoon.
They found their way to that well-heated classroom on the first floor where there was talk about climate accords in Paris, international relations, and the fragility of world peace.
Matt Rijk took notes for his brother. And Johan Rijk smiled as all those scholarly words washed wonderfully over him.
A student once more, happily lost in the arcane intricacies of global politics in a cozy classroom on a snowy campus that is, improbably, his again.
Thomas Farragher, a Globe columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.