Mike Schultz: Life is about adapting
Wayne Drehs [ARCHIVE]
January 28, 2013
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ASPEN, Colo. -- The note wasn't terribly long. One-hundred forty-eight words to be exact. But on that day, in that moment, it was precisely what Mike Schultz needed to give him hope.

Before that day, the 31-year-old Schultz had never met Jim Wazny. Had never even heard of him. But the two shared something in common that few could ever understand.

In April 2000, Wazny lost most of his left leg after a motocross accident. Eight years later, the same thing happened to Schultz in a gruesome SnoCross accident.

When he heard of Schultz's ordeal, Wazny sat down at his computer, logged onto Schultz's CaringBridge Web page and typed a message in the guestbook. He said he understood what Schultz was going through. He knew that no words could take away the pain, but he wanted him to know that, in time, things would get better. With the help of family, friends and prosthetic technology, Schultz could walk, run and, if he wanted to, race SnoCross again. At the end of the message, Wazny left his phone number.

"Please give me a call if I can ever help in any way," he wrote.

As the field of snowmobiles raced past and Sara Schultz didn't see her husband's No. 5 Ski-Doo, she knew something was wrong. Mike Schultz had grown up racing everything from BMX bikes to snowmobiles and had never been seriously injured. Sure, there had been a few bumps, bruises and breaks -- including a fractured clavicle five days before their wedding -- but it was never serious. Never was his life in danger.

But for some reason, this felt different. Sara knew her husband hadn't been entirely comfortable racing that December day in 2008. The course in the Upper Peninsula town of Ironwood, Mich., included a series of steep downhill runs. Schultz and his crew had struggled at practice to set the sled to his liking. Race day brought overcast skies. It wasn't easy to see, but Schultz had always been a fierce competitor. And that day was no different. He straddled his sled and tried to make something happen.

In the final lap of his qualifying run, Schultz fell to sixth place. He needed to make a move. Coming down one of the hills, he pushed the throttle harder than he had done before. His sled hit a bump and began to slide out from underneath him. He couldn't save the sled, so he tried to save himself. He planted his left leg into the ground to brace himself for the fall.

"And then it was just, 'Bam,'" he said, "like I had been shot."

The pain was instantaneously excruciating. His left leg had snapped in half and was hyperextended all the way back to his face. The front of his toe kicked him in the face.

"I freaked out," Schultz said. "I just grabbed it and pushed it away, like, 'This is not supposed to be here. Get out of here.'"

As he waited for help, Schultz rolled back and forth on the ground screaming as blood flowed everywhere. When the EMTs arrived, they zipped open Schultz's pant leg.

"I just remember the sound of blood going, 'Whooosh,'" he said. "I knew I was in bad shape right then and there."

From where she had been watching the race, Sara couldn't see any of this. She had no idea what happened other than her husband's sled had failed to reach the finish line. When the race ended, she ran onto the course in search of answers. A snowmobile picked her up. As soon as she came over a small hill, she saw it. Blood. Everywhere. The bright white snow around her husband had turned a horrific shade of red.

That's when she heard the screams. They gave her chills. When Sara arrived at her husband's side, his face was pale. A delivery room nurse back home in Minnesota, she knew he was going into shock. She grabbed his hand, looked him in the eyes and immediately went into nurse mode. She told him to breathe. Relax. She insisted that everything was going to be fine.

Three days later, as she stood next to her husband's hospital bed, Sara had a simple request. She asked him to look at his left leg, try to move it and describe what it felt like.

Even getting to this point had been a nightmare.

The hospital where they had been taken was less than a mile from the track. Schultz remembers there wasn't a trauma center. Or an orthopedic surgeon. According to Sara, there was just one nurse and one doctor working in a two-room ER.

He would need to be airlifted to a trauma center in Duluth, Minn., more than 100 miles and two states away. But in the minutes since the race had ended, a snowstorm settled in and the helicopters were grounded. An ambulance would be the only way to Minnesota.

As Schultz lay in the back of the ambulance unable to take pain medication because of the excessive bleeding, he thought about soldiers in the Middle East. He convinced himself that they were often hurt worse than this and they came out OK. So he, too, would be fine.

"That's all I could think of," he said.

Covered in blood, Sara had argued her way into the front seat of the ambulance. She continued to breathe with her husband, hoping to keep him from losing consciousness.

"I was never worried about him losing a leg," she said. "I was worried about him surviving."

When the ambulance pulled up to the hospital in Duluth some 2.5 hours after it left Ironwood, more than a dozen doctors were waiting. Schultz was yellow, pale and swollen. Almost immediately, he went into surgery -- 5.5 hours after the accident had occurred.

"They're going to bolt your leg back together," Sara told her husband before she said goodbye. "You'll be fine."

Five hours later, around midnight, Schultz emerged from the operating room sedated and on life support. A breathing tube helped keep him alive. Other tubes, Sara said, seemed to come in and out of everywhere.

The next day there would be another surgery in hopes of stabilizing Schultz, but it barely helped. Instead, his kidneys were starting to fail. His blood pressure was 200/100. Doctors confessed to Sara that the best and perhaps only path to recovery was to amputate his left leg.

She insisted that her husband would have to make that decision for himself, so doctors woke Schultz up. That's when Sara grabbed his hand and asked him to try and move his leg. For about a minute, Schultz tried to move his left leg. He tried to wiggle his toes. At one point, his brain told him his toes were moving. But they weren't.

"I guess it feels numb," he told Sara.

"That's when I knew," she said.

About an hour later, doctors called Schultz's family into his room. They explained that the accident had severed the main nerve in his lower leg. There were circulation problems. Tissue in his leg was already dying. His kidneys were becoming poisoned. There were concerns that Schultz could suffer a stroke. Even if they could save his leg, doctors said, it would never be...
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