Annie Ruth believes in living life to the fullest.
Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photographed by Vincent Rios
Clad in their jumpsuits, Annie Ruth and her mother ascend over Southern
California's Perris Valley. It’s hard to talk over the roar
of the doorless airplane. They reach 12,500 feet. Her instructor, to whom
Annie is tethered, counts down and then they jump.
Initially, they hurtle earthward at 110 mph. Then the chute opens and they
glide slowly, taking in the immense sky and the land below. The pair lands,
and the instructor detaches the hooks connecting them. He lifts Annie
in his arms and places her in her wheelchair.
“Descending was scary until the instructor pulled the cord to open
the parachute,” recalls Annie. “Then it was beautiful, calm
Although the adventure took place more than two decades ago, she remembers
it vividly. “It was thrilling! It was the scariest adventure I have
ever had—and the most fun,” Annie says. But it’s not
the only adventure she’s experienced. She has gone parasailing,
hang gliding, hot air balloon riding and flying in a B-52 airplane.
Clearly, Annie doesn’t let quadriplegia define her life. Since proving
at age 7 that she could successfully attend regular public school, Annie
has lived life on her own terms. That includes earning a degree in communications
from USC, during which she spent a semester in Spain.
And when a friend suggested going on Semester at Sea, Annie didn’t
hesitate—even when her friend backed out. She spent the semester
living on a ship, visiting about a dozen countries. “We [she and
her caregiver] took things day by day. If there was something we couldn’t
do, we didn’t do it.” She was the only participant in a wheelchair.
“I try to think out of the box,” says Annie, now 56.
She became paralyzed at age 5. Waiting for her older sister to finish a
gymnastics lesson, Annie and her brother climbed on the balance beam.
When their mother told the children to get down, Annie replied, “Watch
this!” Attempting to somersault off the beam, she landed on her
neck. The damage to her spinal cord resulted in paralysis and an inability
to breathe independently.
Annie spent nine months at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center
in Downey, initially on a respirator, in a halo and in traction. After
extensive physical and occupational therapy, she returned home to her
parents and three older siblings in Rancho Palos Verdes. A family friend
taught Annie a technique for breathing on her own, which eventually enabled
her to go without a respirator during the day. She still uses one at night.
After graduating from USC, Annie learned coding and software development.
She worked for IBM developing user interfaces. Realizing an MBA would
help her advance, Annie took classes through Pepperdine to earn her master’s degree.
She also participated in numerous service and advocacy organizations. She
worked on a state committee focused on employment for people with disabilities
and served on another involved in providing accessible cell phones for
those with hearing and other physical impairments. Annie served on the
board of the Fulfillment Fund, which grants college scholarships to Los
Angeles Unified School District students, and continues to serve on the
boards of the Los Angeles Rotary Club and her sorority alumnae association—both
of which engage in community projects—and on the Blind Children’s
When she was young, a friend’s parent offered to teach Annie how
to paint using her mouth to hold the brush. They met weekly and talked
about art, color and composition. “It was so much fun,” she
says. She kept up the art through high school but had no time to pursue
it in the decades afterward.
About 10 years ago, she renewed the pursuit. Annie and three other “graduates”
of Rancho Los Amigos initiated The Art of Rancho, an annual exhibit of
artwork made by individuals undergoing rehabilitation there. Today the
program draws around 60 participants and includes pediatric patients.
“Painting is very healing and great for rehabilitation,” she
says. “Some of the participants turn out to be great artists. It
was never in the realm of their thinking before.”
Today Annie, who lives in Rolling Hills Estates, is a member of Mouth and
Foot Painting Artists. She sells some of her work to the association,
which produces and sells products featuring members’ art. Although
she enjoys painting landscapes and seascapes, her subjects vary. They
include a view of a bicycle from the rider’s perspective, ships
with multicolored sails, flowers and a snowboarder.
“I love painting. It makes you focus and forget what’s happening
in the world, what’s on your to-do list … everything. It
keeps you present and in the moment.”
In living with a disability, she says, “you have to put your mind
in the right place. If there’s something you can’t do, you
adjust and accept and move on. Acceptance is a big part of what will make
your life better or worse. I think that should be taught in rehab.”
Annie expresses gratitude to God for being instrumental in her life, as
well as her family and friends. She attributes her zest for life to the
family DNA. “We’re a very active family that does a lot and
enjoys life. There’s so much excitement and beauty in life. You
want to take advantage of what it has to offer.”