The Life We’re Given

Faced with a grim prognosis for his three children, Brian Horan decided there was one thing to do: Get on with living.

By Janalee Card Chmel

Publish Date: January 30, 2014

Horan Sons

(From left) Ian, Ryan and Aaron Horan are busy enjoying the life they've
been given. Photo: Mark Woolcott.

This story could easily take a dive into gushy sentimentality. But it won’t. Brian Horan won’t let it.

He cannot stand pity. Not because it makes him uncomfortable, but because he’s too darned positive to sit still for it.

Brian and his wife, Kim, have three sons with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a genetic disease that affects one out of every 3,600 male infants. Boys who have the disease are unable to make dystrophin, a necessary protein for muscle development. Over time, their muscles become weaker, first affecting the legs and ultimately the lungs and heart.

Twenty-two years ago, all in one day, the Horans learned that all three of their boys — then 2, 4 and 6 years old — had the disease and that none of them would probably live past high school.

“Sometimes I think about that day,” Brian says. “That was a tough week.”

But the Horans have moved well beyond that tough week. During the last six years, Brian and all three of his sons have attended MSU Denver together. In 2011, the oldest son, Ryan, graduated with a degree in speech communication. Brian followed in December 2013 with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. Aaron and Ian are on target to graduate in spring 2014. If you ask Brian how they’ve been able to achieve so much when they have faced such overwhelming challenges, he simply chalks it up to having the right attitude.

“I don’t believe anybody is lucky,” he says. “I think that if you just keep a positive outlook you are able to see opportunities where others may not.”

As life became more routine after their devastating news, Brian and Kim began to focus on getting the boys through high school. Kim decided to stay home while Brian launched a successful career as a service manager in the automotive industry. He was working 65 to 75 hours a week to make ends meet and enjoying the work immensely. As the boys’ abilities declined and they each became reliant on wheelchairs, Brian made all of the accessibility changes to their home himself, saving money on expensive construction projects.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Ryan thrived and graduated from high school in relatively good health. At this point, a lot of parents keep their Duchenne boys home, concerned about growing health risks and accessibility issues.

Because DMD weakens the heart and lungs, those compromised organs can be the ultimate cause of death for many boys with Duchenne. But just as often, a simple cold can become fatal to boys whose physical resources are so diminished. Still, the Horans started planning for college.

“You can’t avoid the things that make life worth living,” says Brian.

In their search for the appropriate school for Ryan, the family visited MSU Denver.

“I was totally impressed,” recalls Brian. “We saw right away at Metro that Ryan could get into every building.”

The Horans also appreciated MSU Denver’s Access Center, which Brian says helped to “level the academic playing field” for his sons “without babying them.”

“The Access Center does a good job of helping in appropriate ways,” says Brian. “You need a special table? A special desk? You need help taking a test? They can do that. But when it comes to your personal needs, like going to the bathroom, that’s up to you. They teach the students that they have to be advocates for themselves, and that matches our parenting philosophy. You can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself.”

Gregory Sullivan, director of the Access Center & Testing Services, says working with the Horans has been a rewarding partnership.

“One of the tenets of our office’s philosophy is to empower students to become full partners in their university experience,” says Sullivan. “I believe Brian has instilled in his three sons that their disabilities do not define who they are as individuals and he has not allowed them to use their disabilities as a roadblock to going to and succeeding in college.”

After two years at MSU Denver, Ryan had a near-death scare. Brian says he and Kim sat down again to figure out how to help their boys — who by now insisted that their parents call them “the guys” — continue living the lives they wanted. Both Aaron and Ian were going to graduate from high school, also defying the odds, and both were looking to follow big brother Ryan to MSU Denver.

“We had two choices,” says Brian. “We could both get jobs and work our butts off to afford three aides, or one of us could help them attend college. And since the guys were getting bigger, it was harder for Kim to help them physically. It made more sense that it would be me.”

Brian, Ian and Aaron became Roadrunners and joined Ryan at MSU Denver. A typical week found Brian on campus six days, accommodating his sons’ school schedules and tackling his own. The four would meet between classes so that Brian could help the guys switch books, go to the bathroom and eat lunch.

Brian also joined the MSU Denver chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and became the group’s treasurer.

“My sons told me that I had joined the Nerd Herd,” Brian says, laughing.

Brian, who isn’t big on formalities and grandstanding, wasn’t going to attend his graduation ceremony. Then he thought about other families with disabled children and he knew it might be helpful for them to see what he had accomplished.

“I want people to know that you can do it,” Brian says. “I know that there are parents out there who won’t let their kid go to college because something might happen. I can guarantee that something’s going to happen! But that’s true with everybody. You’ve got to push to have as normal a life as possible.”

Brian’s trailblazing ways already have inspired others with DMD to attend MSU Denver.

Mike Douglas’ son, John, is a sophomore studying graphic design and marketing.

“John had reservations about attending a school without an aide,” says Douglas. “The fact that the Horan brothers were already attending provided some affirmation for him that he could do it. I honestly don’t believe John would have made the initial step if not for the fact that Brian was on campus willing to respond if John needed assistance.”

Brian will continue to go to campus for another semester, helping Aaron and Ian finish their degrees. Kim is earning a degree in nursing at another university, and Brian thinks that the two of them will “sit down again and figure it out” when they are all done with school.

In the meantime, Brian is keeping a positive attitude and not allowing anyone to feel sorry for him — or for themselves.

“I don’t believe God has a designed path for us. Nobody could be that sadistic to give people some of the lives they have,” Brian says. “I believe that God gave us two great gifts: our life and our freedom. We have total freedom to make whatever stupid decisions we want.

“This is the life we’re given. It’s up to us to make the best of it.”