- Associated Press - Monday, May 15, 2017

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Mark Schuh of Rapid City was living a full, contented life.

The 46-year-old worked hard at his successful professional painting service catering to contractors who built high-end homes in the Black Hills. He helped raise two step-children from his wife’s previous marriage in a loving environment. He spent weekends hunting and fishing, and took occasional vacations as a reward for the couple’s labors.

But, as enduring evidence of the fragility of human beings, and how quickly life can change forever in a single instant, Schuh’s active life as he knew it came to an end in a few terrifying seconds last July 26.

That day, Schuh was working at a custom home off Rimrock Highway west of Rapid City. As he and a co-worker in his painting business loaded 100-pound doors into his trailer, intent on bringing them to his shop for a coat of stain, the half-ton wall of doors cascaded downward, struck Schuh in the head, and left him injured and dazed on the floor of his trailer.

As he lie there awaiting an ambulance, his head hanging in the well of the trailer’s door, Schuh said he simply tried to remain calm, which aided his breathing that had become restricted.

“I thought maybe I had a pinched nerve or something,” he told the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/2p1bwMX ). “The hit I took to my head was so light, and it only left a small scratch on the left side of my forehead. No bleeding, no nothing. Of course, I had never been in that situation before. I thought, ‘Well they’ll get me to the hospital and give me some muscle relaxers.’”

As the 45-minute wait for the ambulance seemed to stretch into eternity, Schuh’s parents, Duane and Carrie, arrived from their nearby home after being alerted to the accident by one of the contractors who was at the job site. They found their only son stretched out on the trailer floor, conscious, but unable to move.

“After the call, the thought went through my head that something bad had happened, and I prayed all the way over there that it wouldn’t be really bad,” Schuh’s mother recalled. “We got there, and I walked up to the trailer, and the guy working with Mark said, ‘Don’t jar the trailer.’”

Carrie Schuh stuck her head into the trailer and asked her son if he was OK, and he said he was. But her motherly instincts told her otherwise.

“I looked at my husband, and we both knew he wasn’t OK,” Carrie Schuh said. “You could tell he was in extreme pain. We waited about 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and it was the longest 15 minutes of my life. His dad told me later that as soon as he saw Mark he knew it wasn’t good. He wasn’t positioned the way a person would be if he could move himself.”

With clarity and deep understatement, she added: “It wasn’t a good day.”

Placed on a backboard, his head immobilized, and rushed by ambulance to Rapid City Regional Hospital, Schuh’s wife, Josette, beat them there after also receiving a call from a contractor. Upon seeing her husband for the first time after the accident, with doctors and nurses scurrying to treat emergency room patients, the first thing Schuh did was apologize to his wife for being such a bother.

For Schuh, memories of that morning and the ensuing days are somewhat of a blur.

“I remember being unloaded from the ambulance,” he said. “I remember them saying they would have to cut my clothes off. I don’t remember a whole lot after that. I don’t remember people coming to see me over the next few days.”

Shortly after Schuh’s arrival in the ER, and following a CT-scan, a doctor entered the injured man’s exam room to find a flock of Schuhs, including Josette, parents Duane and Carrie, step-daughter Candace Wurdeman, Josette’s mother Connie, and Mark’s sister Paula Arthur.

The doctor informed the gathering that Schuh had fractured his C3 and C5 vertebrae and that he had a vertebral artery dissection, a flap-like tear of the inner lining of the vertebral artery located in the neck which supplies blood to the brain.

“The spinal cord was not severed; it was still intact, which was a blessing,” Josette recalled. “But there was shock. What do we do?”

As Schuh lie paralyzed in his hospital bed, unable to move anything from the neck down, the doctor began discussing options which included surgery, or a less-invasive plan to brace his neck, administer steroids, and allow time to heal the fractures. Meanwhile, nurses were prepping a surgical suite in case the family elected surgery, the doctor said.

“We had about 10 minutes to make that decision,” Josette recalled. “Everybody gave their input and the general consensus was, let’s not rush into surgery if it’s not life-threatening right now. Bracing would be less invasive with less chance for infection or other complications. We agreed to hold off, and we wanted to get another opinion.”

Eight days later, Schuh was airlifted to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Englewood, Colo., one of the top-rated rehabilitation hospitals for brain and spinal injuries in the U.S. On the flight were the Schuh, Josette, two nurses and two pilots. For Josette, the flight to Colorado was terrifying.

“It was the scariest flight I was ever on,” she said. “It was such a traumatic time in our lives, but I had to be with Mark, and I did it.”

Three days after arriving at Craig hospital, on Aug. 6, nurses wheeled Schuh into an operating room at Swedish Hospital, a respected Trauma One surgical center, where neurosurgeons fused his C2 to his T2 with two titanium rods and 12 screws designed to increase stability of his decompressed spinal cord.

Still incapacitated from the neck down, Schuh would remain at Craig Hospital for three months, receiving occasional visitors, before returning to Rapid City on Oct. 27. For the middle-aged couple, the return to the Black Hills was greeted with some trepidation.

“It felt really good to be home,” Schuh said. “But it was also scary for both of us, because that support system wasn’t there anymore. We knew there would be challenges and Craig Hospital prepared us for that. But when we got home, it was reality, and we had to deal with that.”

The stark reality of living with a quadriplegic - a person who has lost movement due to paralysis of all four limbs - or the “new normal” as Josette is apt to call it, didn’t take long to surface after the Schuhs returned to their four-level home in a quiet neighborhood on Rapid City’s west side.

One of the Schuhs’ living room couches was displaced to make room for a hospital bed, where Mark now spends the majority of his time with a flat-screen television and the drapes tightly drawn to block prying eyes. Their dining room table was removed as well, to accommodate a wheel-in shower where Josette and caregivers attend to her husband’s daily sanitary needs.

Shortly after the accident, the couple canceled a planned November trip to Mexico. When they returned home from Craig Hospital, they sold Josette’s car and replaced it with a handicapped conversion van, a $53,000 “necessity” they had not anticipated.

As the loss of Mark’s healthy income accompanied his injury, they began receiving a modest Social Security disability stipend of $1,400 a month, but they’re still wrestling with their insurance company, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has twice denied coverage of in-home assistance.

“They don’t feel a quadriplegic needs home health care assistance for daily care,” Josette said with a shrug. So, they recently met with a local advocacy group to gain assistance and advice and pressure the insurance company to cover the costs.

From the time the ambulance picked up Schuh from the accident scene on July 26 until today, total medical costs have approached $1 million. Meanwhile, the Schuhs’ income, insurance and disability payments don’t come close to covering costs from the accident or its aftermath.

Local ambulance charges were $3,000, air ambulance costs were $32,000, neurosurgeons charged $32,000 plus expenses tied to a five-day stay at Swedish Hospital. Craig Hospital invoices averaged $4,000 per day for Schuh’s three-month treatment at the Colorado facility.

Meanwhile, the Schuhs are saddled with $1,200 in monthly insurance premiums, $2,500 per month in home health care costs, and spent $65,000 on a motorized wheelchair, an additional $2,500 on a wheelchair seat lift, $700 for a portable shower, $1,000 on an electrical Hoyer lift that helps transfer the patient from his bed to his wheelchair, and $3,000 on a mattress-turning system that moves Schuh six to nine times per hour so he doesn’t suffer from bedsores.

The burdensome debt led the Schuhs to sell off their prized fishing boat that they’d only owned for a year. The fifth-wheel trailer they treasured in their rare idle hours and Mark’s custom motorcycle are now listed for sale.

They would like to build or buy a one-level ranch house to rid themselves of the obstacles posed by their current multi-level home, but the Schuhs say time will tell if they’ll ever be able to afford it.

While reluctant to discuss the most intimate details of their personal relationship, Josette credited Craig Hospital with providing an educational class on maintaining intimacy in their marriage in the aftermath of the life-changing accident.

“They let us know that it’s still possible,” she said. “I hold Mark’s hand when we’re driving in the van and we still kiss and hug. Human touch is huge for anybody in this situation, because it improves the feeling of isolation experienced by any paralyzed person.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of their tragedy, the Schuhs have come to recognize the importance of family and expressed deep gratitude for the neighbors, including Darald and Joann McElroy from across the street, who have hand-delivered two meals a week to the Schuhs for many months.

A pub crawl conducted in January by the Black Hills Home Builders, of which Mark was a member, netted more than $12,000 to help defray the Schuhs’ medical costs, and a November benefit at the Moose Club raised additional funds. A March 11 benefit at Big J’s Roadhouse in Humboldt, S.D., arranged by three of Mark’s uncles and aunts, also contributed to defray their expenses.

“It makes you feel that there are still good people in the world,” Schuh said from his home hospital bed. “These are just a handful of many individuals and groups that have made their love known.”

And, while it would be easy for Mark Schuh to be mad at the world for his unforeseen plight and the unwelcome challenges that await him in the future, he still awakes each morning with no malice in his heart and a determination to tackle the next obstacle.

“It was an accident,” he said matter-of-factly. “There’s no one to blame. It could have happened to anyone or no one.”


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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