He can't move, but he can feel

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If Michael Lahoff closes his eyes and concentrates, really concentrates, he can stand, cross his arms and wiggle his fingers.

But when he opens his eyes again, he's still paralyzed from the shoulders down, still in the wheelchair that, thanks to a gunman's bullet, he might very well use for the rest of his life.

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Most would find that prospect unbearably difficult. But listen to Lahoff speak and you hear something in his voice that bears no resemblance to depression.

You hear hope.

Maybe it's the Boy Scout in him. Or the community of Scouts, parishioners, family and friends who have formed his spiritual bulwark. Maybe it's a last straw to clutch at for a man robbed of so much, randomly targeted and shot in a Downtown garage almost a year ago.

Whether illusion, delusion or fancy, the idea of movement where no movement is possible is wondrous.

"Right from the beginning, I've had a sense of where my body is. In my mind, I can feel where my legs are, where my arms are, and with my eyes closed, I feel everything works," Lahoff said during an interview this week at the Mt. Lebanon nursing home that has become his permanent residence.

"Honestly, all the time I have a sense of where everything is. I feel my arms are crossed across my chest when they're at my side."

Challenge and change

That is how far Michael Lahoff has come since Jan. 3, when he collapsed on the seventh floor of the Smithfield-Liberty parking garage.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Michael Lahoff has been paralyzed since he was shot Jan. 3 at the Smithfield-Liberty parking garage.
Click photo for larger image.

Then, he was a mess.

Broken vertebra. Broken collarbone. Spinal cord injury. Nicked artery.

Today he won't talk about the shooting, not at all. Lahoff said he's not ready. But he'll willingly pick up from where the ambulance deposited him on the doorstep of his new life.

"I knew what had happened to me. I was awake the whole time," Lahoff, 51, said. "We start off at Mercy Hospital. That's where I was admitted, into the intensive care unit. They put a whole bunch of tubes in me. I had one in my stomach, and I guess one through my nose, and the tracheotomy. For at least two weeks, I couldn't say anything. I couldn't make any sound. I used sign language for everything."

Lahoff couldn't breathe on his own. He couldn't drink. Parched, like a nomad wandering the desert, he fantasized about water. It came slowly, initially only droplets sucked from a sponge. His first true sips from a cup were ecstasy. "That was a moving experience," Lahoff said. His first bites of solid food -- meatloaf -- were just as memorable.

In an instant, in the time it took to pull a trigger, everything became relative for Michael Lahoff. The most basic acts -- breathing, eating, going to the bathroom -- became monumental feats. What was taken for granted became hard-earned.

Lahoff remembers the closing of the Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel, how he used to detour through the Liberty Tubes and up Pioneer Avenue to his Mt. Lebanon home. His record was 12 minutes flat from Downtown.

Now he can't drive.

But the fact that he can sit in a wheelchair for two hours during an interview, breathe unassisted, speak normally -- even smile -- is a testament to his fortitude.

'Band of brothers'

On the day that Michael Lahoff, copier and fax repairman, Boy Scout committee chairman, Sunday school teacher became Michael Lahoff, gunshot victim, quadriplegic, survivor, he woke up around 6:30 a.m. and had a light breakfast.

"Normal day," he recalled. "In fact, it was a nice day."

A short time later, he left his house in a company car to start making rounds at 8 a.m.

Using the Smithfield-Liberty garage as his base of operations, Lahoff parked in his usual spot and, armed with his Nextel, dropped in on a few clients Downtown.

A Kennedy native and father of a 20-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, Lahoff graduated from Montour High School and then Penn State University with a degree in English. He had worked as a roving repairman since 1987. But the job did not define the man.

For more than a decade, Lahoff has been heavily involved in the Boy Scouts with Troop 65, which is based at Sunset Hills Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon. He also taught Sunday school at St. Winifred Church, also in Mt. Lebanon.

Lahoff would rely on all three institutions to get him through what came next in the garage. Contrary to reports at the time, Lahoff did not return to his car at 10:45 a.m. to unload equipment. He went to pore over a parts supply manual.

According to police accounts, two teenagers accosted Lahoff, sticking a gun in his back and demanding his wallet. Even after Lahoff complied, police said, 18-year-old Marty Armstrong Jr. squeezed the trigger of a 9 mm handgun.

Police arrested Armstrong a short time later and then picked up his alleged accomplice, Lamont Fulton, 17. Both former Peabody High School students are scheduled to stand trial Feb. 9.

Lahoff has not read or seen any news accounts of his shooting. He won't discuss how he feels about the culprits. But he is generous with praise for his extended support system and how they helped him cope.

He has shopping bags filled with cards from well-wishers, some of them strangers. He refers to his friends from rehabilitation as a "band of brothers." Troop 65 bestowed upon him a special camping award, the "Order of the Arrow," and a bright red polo shirt. They've begun holding committee meetings at his nursing home.

All that helps, as do his faith and pragmatism about his condition.

"When it comes to paralysis, you just don't know. But on the other hand, it's wise not to hang your hopes on walking again. I've pretty much accepted things as they are. I'd be pleased as punch to walk tomorrow, but I don' t think that's going to happen," Lahoff said.

When Lahoff needs to, he offers up prayers. A few nights, he said, he's cried. But, he added, there's not much point to that.

"When bad things happen to you, there are people who start pointing to God and saying, 'Why did God let that happen to me?' " Lahoff said. "God isn't to be questioned. ... God for me is only there for me to call on when trouble hits me, when things are bad, to hold me in His hand."

"When bad things happen, fall back on the faith you have. Things will get better. Things will improve."

A boost from technology

Someone has to hold the electric razor to Lahoff's cheek. Someone has to change him, to feed him, to bathe him. He needs a catheter.

Lahoff's quotidian routines include worrying about a fever, which indicates infection. His regular body temperature now, for some reason, is 95.5 degrees.

There is a pain sometimes that courses from one side of his temple, along his jaw, and through his neck. From there, it traces a stinging path, descending from his shoulder all the way to his little finger. Lahoff calls this pain "Clyde." Sometimes, he said, "Bonnie" assails him from the other side.

All that woe is somewhat offset by the marvels of space-age technology. Lahoff uses a remarkable wheelchair that he controls with his tongue, pressing it against one of nine circular pads on a circuitboard built into an upper retainer he wears in his mouth.


He can tilt up in his wheelchair.


He can rotate.


He can dial a phone. Or turn on the TV. Or summon help via pager. Or move a mouse on a computer screen.

"I have some plans already for the computer," Lahoff said. "I hope with my laptop in hand, I can go to troop meetings and be of some service with that."

He also wants to go camping again. He hopes to "hike" 15 miles in Gettysburg no later than 2005, if his wheelchair's battery can hold a charge long enough.

"Whenever I'm feeling good, no infections, no pain to deal with, the possibilities are endless," Lahoff said. "I'd say that I'm doing real well right now. Just terrific. I would say the future looks bright."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.