Healing hands for broken lives

Sunday, November 30, 2003


When you are a crash victim clinging to life, you don't get to pick which hospital you go to.

That's a good thing for Vicky Schmidt of Antrim County, because she had hardly heard of Saint Mary's hospital in Saginaw.

Suffering from severe internal injuries, broken bones and spinal damage, Schmidt was near death when emergency workers pried her out of her Chevy Tahoe after a crash in 2001. Her husband, Terry, ejected from the vehicle as it rolled end over end, was in worse shape.

Ambulances rushed them to nearby Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord, but as soon as they were stable, emergency crews placed them on a helicopter bound for Saint Mary's.

"We're so lucky," said Vicky Schmidt, who since has moved to Grand Rapids, where she and her husband are continuing their recovery.

Dozens of northern Michigan crash victims such as the Schmidts are finding their ways to Saginaw, clinging to life and hoping for a chance at recovery that hospitals farther north can't provide.

"Once they found out (my injuries) were neurological, they took us right there," Vicky Schmidt said.

She has little doubt that the medical care she received at Saint Mary's has made her recovery possible, and the work of neurosurgeon E. Malcolm Field likely saved her husband's life.

Shattered dream

Terry and Vicky Schmidt shared a dream life on Big Bradford Lake south of Gaylord, two healthy children, a custom home Terry built and a passion for high-adrenaline pursuits such as bungee jumping and scuba diving.

Then the crash on Aug. 10, 2001, smashed their bodies and their dreams.

At first they prayed to survive to raise their children, Trevor, now 11, and Tori, 6. Then they prayed to recover from their injuries -- so severe they could no longer meet their own needs.

Today, after two years of relentless rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, the couple are rebuilding their fractured lives and re-framing their future.

They know Terry, 46, will not return to his building business and Vicky, 39, won't run or dance.

But both have come a long way since Field told the family Terry probably would die, and other doctors told them Vicky would never walk again. Terry still can't talk clearly, but he's relearned how to eat, smile and laugh. And both can walk with help.

Vicky believes they will improve.

"I wanted to say, 'Baloney, you don't know who you're dealing with,' " she said of the doctors' diagnoses. "I'd like to thank you for giving me this start. Now see what we do with it."

With in-home assistance, they get the kids off to school, shop for groceries, prepare meals and pay bills.

Most of all, they are grateful for medical advances that allow them to continue to heal two years after the crash.

The crash

On the afternoon of the crash, the family was headed to Traverse City.

Terry was driving, unbuckled. Trevor was buckled in the front seat next to his dad. Vicky, feeling sick to her stomach, unbuckled her seatbelt and curled up next to Tori, who was in her child restraint seat.

Just 15 minutes from home, Vicky felt the vehicle jerk and heard Terry say, "This is not good." The next thing she knew, they were tumbling violently.

Out the car windows she saw only the green of grass and trees. And then came the crash that blotted out everything.

Those who reconstructed the crash believe the right wheel of the family's SUV dropped onto the shoulder along a rough patch of road. As Terry pulled back onto the pavement, a tire blew and the car rolled end over end into a tree.

The children were dazed but unhurt. But the impact threw Terry out of the vehicle, and he lay 20 feet from where the car was tipped on its side. Vicky was hurled against the back of the driver's seat and lay wedged there with one leg out of the vehicle.

"It felt to me like the world cracked and shattered into a million pieces," Vicky remembers. "I could feel my broken back, and I thought for sure I was dying, and that Terry was dead."

Inside the crumpled Tahoe, she held onto Tori's car seat and prayed. "I said, please, I will accept anything to live. Just let me live."

Doctors in Gaylord knew immediately that Vicky and Terry needed trauma specialists. Emergency crews flew them to Saint Mary's, but not before surgeons removed Terry's ruptured spleen.

Doctors in Saginaw found Terry had a broken pelvis, broken ribs, collapsed lungs and -- worst of all -- a traumatic brain injury. In an induced coma, they didn't expect him to live.

Doctors diagnosed Vicky with a broken back, a neck fracture, a spinal-cord injury, a broken nose and cheekbone, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and head injuries. Her legs were paralyzed.

Vicky couldn't speak because of the breathing tube in her throat, so she asked for paper and a pen.

"The first night there I wrote a letter to Terry's doctors," she said. "I wanted them to know who he was, that he was a man of amazing strength, and not to give up on him, not to underestimate him."

Terry's journey

Field hadn't offered her much hope because early tests showed little brain activity.

Terry remained comatose and on a ventilator for weeks.

When Terry came out of his coma at Saint Mary's in early October 2001 -- almost eight weeks after the crash -- Vicky was in Mary Free Bed Hospital & Rehabilitation Center in Grand Rapids.

He stared blankly and didn't move.

By late October, doctors transferred him to a Grand Rapids nursing home so he could be near Vicky. She met him when he arrived at the nursing home. He looked confused and scared, she said.

Vicky, who now had a steel rod in her back and had battled a blood clot on her left hip, fevers and pneumonia along with her other injuries, had spent three months in Mary Free Bed and soon would move to a Grand Rapids condominium with a personal care attendant.

During the seven months Terry spent at the nursing home, now called Spectrum Health Continuing Care Center, Vicky visited often, pushing, cajoling and teasing him into trying harder. Always his biggest cheerleader, she was a one-woman motivation team.

Terry's first smile came four months after the crash, when a friend walked into his room flashing a mouthful of "Billy Bob teeth" he'd gotten at a novelty store.

Not long after that, he surprised Vicky by saying his first word: "Hi."

When he had made enough progress, Terry moved to Mary Free Bed in May 2002.

"For him to even go to Mary Free Bed was a huge goal," Vicky said. "No one expected him to do it."

He still wasn't talking and couldn't walk. But Vicky had found him a wheelchair he could operate with his good left arm.

In June 2002, 10 months after the crash, Trevor and Tori came to live with Vicky in a downtown Plaza Towers condominium. Vicky's mother, Barbara Carter, 61, of Harrison had cared for them in their home.

In summer 2002, Terry moved from Mary Free Bed to Hope Network Sojourners, a residential treatment facility in Grand Rapids that helps people learn how to care for themselves.

"For the first time, I began thinking he might be coming home," Vicky said.

Months later, he moved in with Vicky and the kids at the Grand Rapids condo.

For the past year, Terry has had regular sessions with a number of therapists, including speech and language pathologist, Jill Bates.

When Bates first saw Terry he said only single words, and they were hard to understand. He ate pureed foods and thickened liquids because he had trouble chewing and swallowing. He often was confused and disoriented, didn't initiate conversation, and seldom laughed. In fact, his face showed no emotion at all.

"Terry's brain injury caused muscle weakness and a lack of coordination all over his body," Bates said.

Terry -- the man that Saginaw doctors didn't think would live -- has relearned how to breathe, swallow, walk and even smile. He eats wet burritos and his favorite beef and cheddar sandwiches. He laughs -- mostly at his own jokes.

"He's made some amazing progress," Bates said. "And we have great hopes that he will continue to improve."

Vicky's journey

Meanwhile, Vicky was fighting battles of her own.

With a spinal-cord injury at mid-chest, her initial diagnosis was complete paralysis. That was changed at Mary Free Bed to incomplete paralysis because she could feel sensation in her legs.

Vicky's files at Mary Free Bed are as thick as three phone books -- every page a report from a doctor or therapist.

When she moved her left big toe three months after the crash, she called her mother, screaming with excitement. "It was like, whoa! I thought it was the beginning of something." But a year went by after that without much progress.

During that time Vicky learned to transfer from her wheelchair to almost any surface. The exertion took its toll. She had carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists and coped with tendonitis in her shoulders.

In November 2002, she got a van with a wheelchair lift and soon moved to the Plaza Towers condominium. But she needed a full-time caregiver at home, and still had trouble thinking clearly and remembering things.

Worst of all, although Terry was alive, Vicky felt she had lost her best friend, and she grieved.

Vicky was determined to get on her feet again. However, the spasticity in her legs -- involuntary muscle contractions that often come with paralysis -- prevented control over them. And it kept her from sleeping well.

"I'd wake up like a pretzel," she said.

Once the muscles were under control, physical therapist Tim Lesch thought she might be a candidate for Parastep, a device that electrically stimulates muscles and nerves to help the legs make a walking stride.

Using long leg braces and the stimulator, Vicky began walking with a walker last January. And it strengthened her unused back, hip and leg muscles. The electrical stimulation "kept waking things up," Vicky said.

By March she could stand up without the stimulator, using one long and one short leg brace. By early June, Vicky used a walker with two short braces, making it easier to bend the right knee normally as she walked. And by September she was navigating curbs, stairs and grass.

Today, she can walk 800 feet with a walker, using Parastep only to stimulate the right leg.

Dr. Sam Ho, spinal cord injury program director at Mary Free Bed, credits the work of surgeons and medical crews that first responded to the Schmidts' crash. Patients with neurological damage can make amazing recoveries, but much of their success depends on the immediate care they received and the amount of permanent damage they suffered.

"We cannot take credit for the work done in Saint Mary's, Saginaw," Ho said. "The care they gave (the Schmidts) is what determines what we have to work with."

Of course, effort and attitude count also figure in how quickly rehab patients reach their potential.

"The physician cannot heal the patient. We are there to help them, but we cannot do the work for them," Ho said. "Ultimately, it's the patient's motivation."

The future

Vicky's and Terry's medical expenses, rehabilitation and caregiving costs are covered through their no-fault automobile insurance.

This summer, the family moved from their downtown condo into a rented handicap-accessible home. Seven around-the-clock caregivers take turns helping them. Seven more therapists come to the house for ongoing rehabilitation. In addition, Vicky gets outpatient therapy at Mary Free Bed.

Her goal is to walk without the stimulator.

Meanwhile, Terry is learning to do everything left-handed because his right side is weak.

They are upbeat most of the time. But both are aware of their losses.

"The most upsetting thing is what this has done to our children," Vicky said. "I just want to be able to give them this perfect, normal life."

Vicky doesn't dwell on what she can't do. She's thrown herself into wheelchair tennis and finds pleasure in family outings.

Terry went turkey hunting in his wheelchair. This month he was in the field for the opening week of deer season.

He can't articulate how he feels about losing his building ability, his physical derring-do.

Terry erupts in laughter sometimes when others are only mildly amused, and he is moved to tears easily, evidence of his brain injury.

"But he's so in there still," said Vicky. "We still have a marriage. We have humor. We have arguments. His soul -- his essence -- is still there."

Doctors expect Terry will one day walk with a cane. He'd like to go into the charter fishing business with Vicky's brother, Richard.

And Vicky thinks someday she'll go back to college.

"When I get through this and I have a life again that doesn't revolve around getting better, I think I'd like to be an architect -- design sensible homes."

She looks forward to one day meeting with Field again.

"We're going to walk back in there and see him someday." t


© 2003 Saginaw News. Used with permission

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