Devastating diagnosis strikes San Dimas firefighter who recently got married

SAN DIMAS, Calif. (KABC) — Dozens of friends turned out for Ryan Wilson Palmer’s 49th birthday. They put candles on his cake, hugged him and sang to him.

But Ryan’s actual birthday isn’t for another several months. His wife Wendy wanted to celebrate him while he could still enjoy it.

A week after his party, Ryan could hardly lift his head or speak. It’s hard to believe that two months ago, he was professionally fighting wildfires in Northern California.

When he returned to his San Dimas home, Wendy knew she had to rush him to the ER.

“I noticed his speech was different, he was stuttering,” she said.

After a month of waiting on test results, doctors diagnosed him.

“It was Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is very, very rare,” Wendy said.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also known as CJD, affects about one in a million people. It’s a swiftly, progressive neuro-degenerative disorder that kills most patients within a year. It occurs when a protein called a prion folds abnormally.

Chief of Neurology with Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Dr. Prasanth Manthena compares it to the art of paper folding.

“Every protein is like origami. It’s shaped in a certain way,” he said.

But when prion proteins misfold, Manthena said they cause a domino effect in the brain.

“The abnormal protein cannot be broken down. Basically, that accumulated protein is very toxic,” said Manthena.

Every CJD patient is different and some progress faster than others do. Palmer’s wife has seen rapid changes in him in just the last few days.

“A person with such a beautiful mind, you know? And for this … it just seems so ironic,” said Wendy.

Wendy and Ryan have known each other since high school, but just got married in February.

Vows to cherish each other in sickness and in health are still very fresh.

“He’ll squeeze my hand and I’ll know what it means,” said Wendy.

Wendy said when Ryan learned about his illness, he asked her this:

“‘Did I do enough?’ and I told him, ‘Of course, you saved people’s lives being a firefighter, running toward danger when the rest of us are running away from it.’ It takes a certain kind of person,” she said.

The couple’s health insurance doesn’t cover the 24/7 nursing care Ryan’s needs so their friends started a GoFundMe to help with the mounting medical expenses.

“You’ve got to pay bills. You’ve got to go to work. You’ve got to keep insurance going, and he deserves all the dignity,” Wendy said.

At Ryan’s birthday celebration, the night was filled with smiles and singing. The couple no longer waits for birthdays or anniversaries.

They’ve learned that if you love someone, you should celebrate them now.

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