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Born with ‘a sheep dog attitude,’ Hendrix served in life and death

The life of Ryan, from left: Eldest brother Jamin holds weeks-old Ryan; playing soccer in high school, lined up for a buzzcut after joining the Marine Corps; soon after joining the Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy. The life of Ryan, from left: Eldest brother Jamin holds weeks-old Ryan; playing soccer in high school, lined up for a buzzcut after joining the Marine Corps; soon after joining the Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy.

Heidi Hendrix had delivered three boys when she got pregnant with a fourth, in 1985. At the end of Heidi’s pregnancy, her mom couldn’t resist calling, again and again, “begging me to have this baby that I wasn’t having.”

 

That day, Dec. 8, was Heidi’s mom’s birthday. Ryan Patrick Hendrix was born at 12:24 a.m. on Dec. 9.

“My parents said he was born 25 minutes late,” Heidi said. “But he was never a boy that was late. He was ahead of time.”

At 9 pounds, 4 ounces, and 21 inches long, Ryan was the biggest baby Heidi and her husband, Don, would have. He was in the middle. Ryan had three older brothers, three younger brothers and a little sister.

“The nurse said when she held him when he was first born that he tried to jump out of her arms,” Heidi recalled. Don added: “He was born with a six-pack. At seven months old, he could climb the chair and get onto the (kitchen) table.”

Ryan came into the world the way he would live it: ready to rumble. Having three big brothers presented more of an opportunity than a challenge.

“They had to stand up to him,” Heidi said. “He was always poking the bear, and the other three were very calm. He was a very active baby.”

Deputy Hendrix wasn’t poking a bear in the predawn darkness of Sept. 10 when he answered the emergency call that cost him his life. A bear would be too kind a description for the convicted felon who led deputies to think, for a second, that he was about to surrender. Instead, the suspect pulled a gun and shot Cpl. Hendrix. A detective with the Charlie Ida squad, Hendrix, 34, had been called as a backup to a crime scene in Mountain Home. Three hours later, after deputies visited their home, Don and Heidi and their youngest son, Stephen, were stopped at a blockade on the way to Mission Hospital. What they saw hinted that their worst fears could be realized.

* * * * *

Their humility, self-reliance and quiet faith make Don and Heidi seem like they could be from the rural South. Don grew up in New Jersey. Heidi was raised in the Catskills in New York.

“When we hit the mountains I knew I was coming over a different cultural line,” she said.

They moved to Hendersonville in 1978. Ten years later, Don built a log cabin on 17½ acres his dad had bought off Walnut Cove Road in the shadow of Tater Knob.

Heidi and Don, but mostly Heidi, homeschooled all eight of their children. When they reached eighth grade, mom and dad enrolled the kids at Hendersonville Christian School. Don specialized in history. He organized the whole family into a platoon of Revolutionary War re-enactors.

“I loved homeschooling,” Heidi said. She was one of the founders of the Henderson County Home School Association in the mid-1980s. “When we started it was actually illegal,” she said. “We were pioneers. We didn’t really prepare. We just did it.”

Ryan was a fair student at Hendersonville and a better athlete. He’s the kind of person, his mom says, that lived by the Bible without reading every word of it. He and his brothers naturally drifted toward baseball, maybe figuring the family of 10 had enough for a whole team plus a reliever. And there were more players readily available. Heidi’s sister, Pam Gessler, had also moved to Hendersonville. She and her husband, Joe, had 12 children.

“All the boys wanted to play baseball,” Heidi recalled. “Ryan started at age 8 and became an All-Star at age 13.” Although wasn’t big, as a pitcher he had mastered a changeup the other boys couldn’t hit. At age 11, his team won a state championship. The Hendrix kids played soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring and mom and dad demanded a precious few weeks with no trips to sports practices and games.

“He didn’t do basketball because we needed a break,” Don said.

* * * * *

After graduating from Hendersonville Christian in 2005, Ryan tried a semester at Blue Ridge Community College. College wasn’t for him.

One afternoon, when Heidi had taken the girls soccer team she coached to Biltmore Square mall after a game, a cellphone call produced one of those “uh oh” moments.

 “I get this call from Ryan and he said, ‘Hey Mom, where’s my birth certificate?’” To which mom, naturally, responded, “Where are you?”

Ryan was at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station, along with five pals.

“At that time, there was a provision that if you signed up with your buddies you could go with your buddies,” Heidi said. “It was one girl, Heather McKay, and five boys.” They joined the Marines and shipped out to boot camp at Parris Island.

“They went down there and they did so well,” Heidi recalled. “Heather and one of the boys were platoon leaders. Ryan was a squad leader. Three of the other boys were squad leaders.”

Ryan was third in sharp shooting, edged out by two “professional sharp shooters,” Don said. “So he did well in that.”
He graduated from boot camp in January. Ryan volunteered to deploy to Iraq.

“I said, ‘You don’t have to go,’” Don said. “He said, ‘Well, Dad, I’m a Marine and that’s what we do. When the country’s at war, we go.’”

When he got home from Iraq, Ryan tried construction work and a security guard gig before finding a path to the job he loved. He became a detention officer in the Henderson County jail, then enrolled in the Basic Law Enforcement Training at BRCC to become a patrol deputy.

“He had a real sheep dog attitude,” Don said. “He was just born with it.”

In his obituary, the family noted that Ryan loved hunting and fishing. That’s common in obits. Ryan’s relationship with the outdoors was deeper than usual.

“He was very much in touch with nature. He was always outside,” Heidi said.

If Ryan walked through a marsh he could spot a snake where others saw only leaves and grass. One day, soon after Ryan came home from Iraq, Heidi invited him to help clear brush in the yard.

“I thought maybe he missed his mama and wanted to hang out with me,” she said. Next thing she knew, Ryan had scaled an oak tree “at least 40 feet, found a squirrel’s nest, took two baby squirrels and raised them.” He also raised two baby possums. Another time, “he had a snake in his room for like three weeks before I knew it.”

One day Don noticed a car he didn’t recognize at Ryan’s house on the family compound on Walnut Cove Road. Knowing Ryan was at work, Don picked up his phone and called.

“I said, ‘Ryan there’s somebody at your house.’ He said, ‘Yeh, it’s me. I went swimming.’ There was some girl that went swimming in a creek and got in trouble so he dove in and helped her out.”

His parents and siblings, his fellow deputies and his boss all had a sense of Ryan as a deputy with a layered understanding of people. He’d slap the cuffs on a bad guy if that was required but he also wanted to guide them to a better path.

“He treated them humanely,” Don said. “He didn’t treat them like animals. He’d try to keep them out of jail if he could.”

“He showed compassion to the criminals because he realized that without the family structure he had, he could have gone down that exact same path,” younger brother Thomas said at his funeral.

“He would be the first one to fight you,” Sheriff Griffin said. “But when it was done, he would be the first one to pray with you.”

* * * * *

A detective, Cpl. Hendrix frequently got dispatched to work on felony cases he would need to investigate. The suspect that night in Mountain Home had tried to break into a car and then exchanged gunfire with a homeowner.

“When Ryan got that call we all knew he was so happy,” his fiancée, Emily Wilkins, told mourners at Ryan's funeral service. "Cranking up the music, rushing into battle to serve and protect his community. When he knew he was going to handle business with (deputies) Carlos and Omar, he probably started dancing.”

The worst news comes in person, not by phone. Two uniformed deputies and a chaplain knocked on the door of the log cabin at 5:18 a.m., a detail Don will never forget. Ryan was in the hospital, the deputies said. He had been shot two hours earlier. “But they did not know his condition at all,” Don said. “So they just said he had been shot and was up in the hospital in a room. They thought that was a good thing that he was in a room.”

Don and Heidi raced to get dressed and get in the car. Stephen, their youngest, drove.

“They led us to Balfour and then they left and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of the blue lights where it happened,” she said. “They just didn’t think about it, I guess.”

When the roadblock stopped them, Don and Heidi told officers who they were and where they were going.

“It’s the Hendrix family,” a deputy said.

“Nobody would look us in the eye,” Heidi said. “And that was the first time I got a clue that it was not good.”

* * * * *

The bullet that killed Ryan had gone through his head and lodged in his spinal cord. From the start, there was little chance. Everyone involved — the paramedics in emergency services, the doctors at the hospitals, the nurses who attended him around the clock — gave their best to keep his heart beating.

“He was actually revived twice in the ambulance, to keep him alive,” Don said. “And when he was at the hospital he was on life support, because he was an organ donor.”

The objective had turned. It was no longer about saving Corporal Ryan. It was about Corporal Ryan saving others. Ryan was declared clinically dead at 1 o’clock that afternoon, 10 hours after he was shot. Don and Heidi stayed by his bedside.

“And also it was good for us, that we were able to get here and we were able to visit with him for 2½ days,” Heidi said. “We were able to stay and talk with him and love on him.”

“He was on life support so his chest was moving in and out,” Don said. “His body was warm. We were able to hold his hand and rub his feet. It was very good for us.”

* * * * *

The process of organ donation is an intense and time-sensitive operation involving the trauma team at Mission, LifeShare Carolinas, the Charlotte-based organization that coordinates organ transplants, and the family.

“In Ryan’s case, he had a severe head injury,” said Jaclyn Gosnell, a registered nurse who is director of trauma services at Mission. “The neurosurgeon was consulted and the decision was made that it was probably a nonsurvivable injury. From that point there’s a lot of additional tests that are ordered,” to make sure the organ are viable to be transplanted. “Once all those tests come back, LifeShare then begins to reach out and see who’s the match, where should these organs go.”

A family support coordinator with LifeShare began meeting with Don and Heidi.

“They are there to not only talk to the family about this opportunity but to support them through the process,” said Kate McCullough, LifeShare’s community services manager. “Our staff is caring for the patient, making sure to keep them stable, keep those organs viable.”

In the organ allocation process, LifeShare uses a national database to find a match. Once matches are found, LifeShare doctors are involved in “the surgical procedure to remove organs, and then we package them up and we send them to transplant centers where they will be transplanted.”

In March, Mission intensified the focus on identifying situations that could lead to organ donations. Through October, the hospital has greatly increased the number of organ donors and organ donations — to 35 donors and 88 organs, up from 20 donors in all of 2019. As part of its emphasis on organ donation, Mission instituted the “Donor Walk” when a donor-patient is on the way to the operating room.

“It’s just a very honorary walk because we are honoring this hero who, through a very tragic event, the family has consented to save other lives,” she said. A family’s decision to donate their loved one’s organs “is a great way to find some kind of closure in what often is a huge tragedy for a family.”

Around 8 o’clock Saturday morning, it was time for Ryan to roll out of the room and down to the operating room.

As Don and Heidi walked behind them, nurses guided the bed down the corridor. Sheriff’s deputies and police officers stood at attention on the right, saluting. Mission doctors and nurses stood on the left. The elevator doors closed, and Ryan’s last chapter, giving his life to save others, would open.

* * * * *

Ryan’s gift of life is one that McCullough wishes more people would make. One kidney went to a man in his 40s in North Carolina who was liberated from dialysis. The other was transplanted into a South Carolina man in his early 30s. Ryan’s liver saved a North Carolina man in his mid 60s and his lungs breathe for another North Carolina man, in his mid 70s. His heart beats in the chest of a 19-year-old man in Wisconsin.

“Ryan is the example of someone who was a hero in life and after life,” McCullough said. “He was someone who sacrificed for his community and gave his life for his community and he continued to be a hero after his passing.”

In addition to his parents and siblings, Ryan is survived by his paternal grandmother, Helen Hendrix; his daughter, Elloree, and son, Merritt, and his fiancée, Emily, whom he was to marry on Oct. 17.

* * * * *

Back home on Walnut Cove Road, the family would be blanketed by an outpouring of support and comfort, especially from the brotherhood of first responders.

“They took care of all the arrangements,” Don said. “They would ask us what we would like and we would tell them what we would like and they would make sure everything was done. We would only have to think about Ryan and our family and family friends.”

A county emergency services team set up a large tent in the Hendrix’s yard. People brought enough food for an army. Deputies watched the Hendrix home around the clock for 12 days. Sheriff Griffin assigned Capt. Andrew Starling to serve as the fulltime liaison to the family.

“Any question we had, any time of day, he would answer it for us,” Heidi said.

“We call him our guardian angel,” Don said.

After the funeral service at Mud Creek, on Sept. 18, Ryan’s parents and siblings were stunned by the show of support. The procession of sheriff’s cars and police vehicles from across the South and beyond took 40 minutes to pass.

“The day of the funeral — well, the whole thing — there are no words to describe how we felt (seeing the support) from the community,” Don said. “Just like, everybody got stabbed in the heart by this, and they all poured out their love for Ryan, the entire county. We were amazed driving from the church to the cemetery — all the people lined up on the road with signs, saluting. The outpouring was just phenomenal. We live in a phenomenal community. We thank them all for that.”

Eventually, life crept back to something resembling routine.

“It still seems surreal to me that Ryan’s gone,” Don said. “He was so full of life. It’s like, ‘This can’t happen to someone like that.’ And it did.” Standing in a grocery store or somewhere in public, “You realize nobody knows what we went through. You’re in a different universe now.” It’s an unnatural place, occupied by mothers and fathers who had to bury a child.

One day, not long after Ryan’s death, Heidi passed dozens of strangers when she walked up and down Main Street. It struck her: “There’s not one person here that knows.”

The happier moments come when someone tells them about their son. At a restaurant, they spotted a high school student wearing a T-shirt the sheriff’s office made to honor Ryan. He had spoken to her class several times.

“I loved Ryan,” she told them. “He was my favorite officer. He was helping me a lot.”

They’ve heard many stories like that.  

“Ryan never told us these things, the good things that he was doing,” Heidi said.

People know Don and Heidi suffered a heart-breaking loss, and they sometimes ask what they can do. “You can give us stories,” they respond.

“We do like to talk about him,” Don says.

People can share videos or photos or memories of Ryan Hendrix, the “ahead of time” kid that threw a mean changeup and harbored a snake and raised baby possums, the Marine who volunteered for Iraq because “that’s what we do,” the deputy sheriff who cranked up the music and dashed into the night to take care of business with Carlos and Omar, the hero who sacrificed his life protecting his community then saved five lives on the way out. People can share stories about that life.

* * * * *

Visit LifeShare Carolinas here to register as an organ donor. Click here to contribute to the Deputy Ryan Hendrix Scholarship Fund at BRCC.