Jay's journey: Duke or bust


The iconic Duke Chapel rises up from the highest point on the Durham, North Carolina campus. A stop inside is a must for visitors and prospective students like Jay Ruckelshaus, who was heavily recruited.

"He was the top kid of the class, everyone wanted him," said Jenny Wood Crowley, who administers the prestigious A.B. Duke Scholarship program.

But Jay's future changed in an instant after a paralyzing dive into shallow water at Geist Reservoir. It happened just six weeks after graduating in 2011 as Cathedral High School's valedictorian. On campus, he was well known as the extraordinarily bright teen who had missed just one question on the SAT exam.

"When I was first injured, I had no control over anything besides the fact that I couldn't move my body. I was in the hospital. I was not where I was supposed to be. All my friends were going off to college. I was upset so there was a huge confidence and control issue there," remembers Jay.

But time has passed and there has been healing. Jay is now 20. He says since the accident he's wrestled with failure and imperfection.

"It's very stressful situation, I mean, I am not going to sugar coat it. You never prepare for this," said his mother, Mary Ruckelshaus.

Mary moved with Jay to the Shepard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta for specialized care.

Eyewitness News went to rehab and saw a pale and thin Jay, who required help breathing and talking. A slight movement in his finger was celebrated. He stayed in Atlanta for a year and it become increasingly clear - Duke would have to wait.

"For him not to come is a big a blow, I mean, the class of these scholars is small. We are talking 12-15 students, so missing one is a big part of that," said Wood Crowley.

"We knew from the beginning it was Duke or bust so we did whatever we could," said his mother.

While mother and son acclimated to the schedule of rehab, back at Duke, Leigh Fickling from the Disability Management System office started sending personal, bi-weekly letters to Jay in Atlanta.

"I didn't want to be too pushy, but I wanted him to know there were resources here and we were ready to assist just as soon as he was ready," Fickling said.

After six months and nearly a dozen letters, Jay responded.

"It was an email that I saw. When I got it, I just about fell out of my chair, because I thought, 'This is what I've been doing, I've been waiting on this day'," said Fickling.

It was a year later than planned when Jay started his freshman year.

"If we had not allowed him to do that, it would have been one more thing that the injury took away from him," Mary said.

"I refused to let something even as serious as a spinal cord injury prevent me from coming to where I was supposed to be," Jay said.

Jay is Duke's only quadriplegic student.

"I can feel basically from here up and then everything else is either numb or no feeling," said Jay, pointing to an area in his upper chest.

He lifts both arms and shows his wingspan.

"I can move my arms about this much," he said. "Definitely an improvement over what it used to be. When I was first injured, I could only move my head about this much and shrug my shoulders."

It's his journey, but with limited movement, it was clear Jay couldn't go to Duke alone.

"I didn't want this to be 'Mary going to college with Jay,' and Jay was adamant about that. Who wants to go to college with their mother?" said Mary.

Jay instead asked a neighbor and childhood friend, Joe Witchger, to come to Duke, too.

"I approached Joe. It was kind of out of nowhere. I thought I trust him with my life and if there is anybody I want to do this it's Joe and so I might as well try and so he said yes," Jay said.

Family fundraising created a fund to pay Witchger. He is studying nursing at a community college. He lives with Jay in an newly-adapted apartment in the freshman dorm and blends in.

"I get along with everybody," Witchger said.

Joe helps prepare forkable food for Jay to eat. He makes sure Jay has water. Joe anticipates and helps.

"I couldn't do it without Joe," said Jay.

"Joe has never once said 'I can't do this' or 'I won't do this.' He wants to be Jay's hands, because he knows without his help, Jay can't do what he needs to do throughout the day," said Mary.

"I'm just here making sure that he gets to where he wants to be," Joe said.

And Jay is thriving.

"I will tell anyone who listens Jay got three A-pluses and an A last semester, so he's doing something right, right?" said Jenny Wood Crowley.

It's all the more impressive when you see how Jay has to do his work. He writes an outline for a Political Science class with knuckles and voice activation software.

The process is tedious.

The computer often comes up with words different than what Jay says. It can take minutes for Jay to repeat the word often enough, until the computer displays the correction one.

"To see the amount of work that he has to do just to present the same work as every other student is mind-boggling," said Mary.

The computer study space is also where Jay works on his strength. A personal trainer comes in twice a week and Witchger helps set up electric stimulation for Jay's leg muscles.

"His ability to be very calm under pressure is remarkable," said Mary of Witchger.

But it works. In fact, year one is done and Witchger has already agreed to go back.

"I'm going to get my goals done, but I am going to make sure that he get his done, also, " Witchger said.

"Looking back, I don't know if there is one thing I would have done differently. It's been phenomenal and, fortunately, I have so many people that I can actually thank for making it that was," Jay said.

The education continues this summer. Part of Jay's A.B. Duke Scholarship includes studying a semester abroad at Oxford.

And yes, Joe's going to.

Saturday night, nearly 700 people will attend a gala at the Lucas Estate in Carmel, where Jay will announce his new foundation, The Ramp Less Traveled.

Jay says through his journey, he has learned that too often, education is out of reach for people after a life-altering injury. He has friends who were fellow patients in rehab who have no education and no job prospects.

That, Jay says, has to change.