Jan Goodwin 2015-07-15 04:22:47
A tree limb crushed a 21-year-old’s spine but not her spirit. Life was good. It was a gorgeous Memorial Day weekend in 2013 at Strawberry Lake in bucolic northern Minnesota, famed for its pristine waters, eagles and loons. Samantha Schroth was chatting outside her friend’s cabin. They were about to put in a boat to go sailing. The next thing she knew she was lying on the ground with her friend staring down at her. The 21-year-old had been felled by a massive dead branch as it broke away from a tree. The tree limb was so heavy it took two people to lift it off her. That was her last memory for nearly a month and a half. An ambulance rushed Schroth to the nearest clearing where a helicopter could land. From there she was airlifted to the closest trauma center in Fargo, North Dakota, some 64 miles away. Her mother, Darlene, at the family home in Greenville, Wisconsin, took the phone call and could only pray that her middle daughter would survive. What she didn’t know then was that her daughter’s spinal vertebrae had been pulverized at mid-chest level, her ribs broken and a lung had collapsed, plus she had a mild brain injury from being smashed backward. It would take 10 hours of surgery just to stabilize her thoracic vertebrae 7 and 8. She needed a tracheotomy and a TLSO spinal brace, which resembles a bulletproof vest or chest plate, for the compression injury. Exactly a week earlier, Schroth, who seemed only to have one speed—zoom—had graduated from college in three years, instead of the customary four. A lifelong lover of animals, she had been accepted at veterinary school, which she planned to start in the fall. The upbeat young woman, 6 feet tall and model slim, with her trendy, spiky hair and a fondness for dangling earrings, had always grabbed life with both hands. Rarely still, she’d been valedictorian and class president at her high school, sang in the choir, played in the jazz band, performed in musicals and plays, competed on the debate team and served as president of the Spanish National Honor Society. She’d won a college scholarship from Lions because of her community service. In her “spare time,” she was also training to run in her first marathon that July. Now, the damage to her spinal cord caused communication problems from her brain to the rest of her body. Schroth was paralyzed from the mid-chest down. “In that moment at the lake, all I had ever known and planned for myself had changed,” says Schroth. While she was in critical care, doctors told her family that had the branch hit her an inch higher or lower she would have died. To all outward appearances, Schroth’s once very promising future appeared severely curtailed. But anyone who thought so did not know this young woman. It also helped that after Fargo, she was transferred to the renowned Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver, Colorado, whose motto is “Redefining the Possible.” Or that on her medical team was a doctor in a wheelchair, William Scelza, a paraplegic himself since 1988. At Craig, she would learn to do many of the things that had come naturally before: how to open a door, how to dress herself—putting on pants can be quite a challenge for a paraplegic—how to get her wheelchair into a vehicle before driving. From being the girl with the seemingly golden life, she also had to come to terms with what had happened to her. Her down-to-earth mother, a stay-at-home mom, was frank with her from the beginning. “I’d tell her she was paralyzed, but that everything was going to be okay,” says Darlene. “I said life would be a little bit different, but the Lord would still be by her side. For those first few weeks, there was no response. Sam was calm. I didn’t know if she was taking it in. I think her lack of memory in those early weeks was protecting her from the trauma she’d been through.” As Schroth’s mother spent time with her at the hospital, her father, Paul, a corn and bean cash crop farmer in his mid-50s, got busy at home. In the frigid Wisconsin winter when the land is frozen, he spends the season “getting ready for spring, fixing and repairing.” So he had the skills to prepare their home for their daughter’s return. He built a long wheelchair ramp to their ranch-style home and made other adjustments inside to accommodate his daughter and her wheelchair. Once her daughter “woke up,” Darlene says, “her physical therapy could kick in.” And the PT at Craig was grueling: 10 long weeks, starting at 7 a.m. and continuing until 5 p.m. with a too-quick hour for lunch. “It was tough, but I needed it,” says Schroth. “I’d always had a lot of body strength from being a big runner. But I didn’t have the upper body strength I needed now, especially for maneuvering a wheelchair.” There was also speech therapy necessary for her mild traumatic brain injury. “My daughter has always set herself high goals that she works very, very hard to obtain,” says Darlene. “She’s a special young woman, a go-getter. If she wants to do something, she’ll do everything in her power to achieve it. What happened to Sam was hard to accept, but it became the new normal, for her and for us. She’s very independent, and wants people to realize that just because she’s in a wheelchair she’s still the same person as she was before the accident.” Schroth agrees. “People deal with you differently. There are all these preconceptions about people in wheelchairs and what they can and cannot do. I probably had some of them myself. The pity glances—like disabled people can’t ever amount to anything. But that is definitely not the case. I just have to think of ways of making the world work for me. Sure, stairs are not my best friend, but I don’t focus on what I can’t do, but on what I can. Disability does not define you.” Schroth’s accident affected two families: her own and the family among Greenville Lions. Schroth's father is a Greenville Lion. Wayne Dorsey, 51, the immediate past president, lives one block from the Schroths. “The Schroth girls, Sam and her two sisters, are very smart, did very well in school. It was so tragic. All the Lions were stunned, shocked. When you heard about it, you turned inward, thinking of your own kids. Mine are 18 and 14. It could have happened to anybody.” Greenville Lions assisted with one of Sam’s early benefits called “Life Ain’t Bad.” “After the accident, her family had a lot of medical bills piling up. We are always raising money all over the place. We helped run the raffle at the benefit,” says Dorsey. “Sam is such a special person, so outgoing. And always has been, even after the accident. When one of our own gets hurt, we are there.” The club also helped with a benefit to buy her an adapted vehicle. “Sam is an amazing young lady,” says Riley Fieser, a charter member. “She has such an awesome attitude, a strong faith. After the accident her spirit has been unbelievable. She went through this terrible accident but has not let it affect her outcome in life.” Schroth visited Lions meetings both before and after the accident. “She came the first time to thank us for the college scholarship she received. Then to tell us how her first year in college was going,” says Fieser. “Since the accident, she returned to talk to us about being in a wheelchair, to thank us for our support and to tell us that she was transferring from veterinary medicine to human medicine. She stays in touch to let us know what is going in her life—which is a great deal.” Schroth views herself as “differently abled.” Currently, she is studying business at the University of Wisconsin Fox Valley. She works part-time at the University of Minnesota, researching metagenomics of bacteria, the study of genetic material recovered from environmental samples. She recently applied to medical school. “I’d like to become a doctor specializing in a field I’m now extremely passionate about—spinal cord injury medicine. I want to help people thrown into situations like mine,” explains Schroth, now 23. Her volunteer spirit remains entirely intact. She mentors new spinal cord injury patients at a local hospital and tutors at a middle school. She also restarted her training for a marathon, but this time in a racing chair. “They are amazing things—custom-built for each athlete. They fit on your body pretty snug. You are tucked inside them like an egg,” she says. “It’s takes a lot of work, but they can go very fast. I’ve gotten up to 18 miles an hour in mine so far.” It’s clear that although a tree branch fell on her, it came nowhere close to breaking her spirit. She was recently crowned Ms. Wheelchair America 2015, which involves educating and advocating for the more than 54 million Americans living with disabilities. The day after her interview with the LION Magazine, she and her mother flew to Arkansas for the Ms. Wheelchair organization to speak to kids with disabilities and help out at a fundraiser. She diligently fundraises to pay for most of her own expenses for this activism and for her mother to accompany her. Schroth had been in Greenville shortly after she won the Ms. Wheelchair award. Lions hold an annual Parade of Checks to present donations to the fire department, civic club, first responders and others. Schroth was the parade’s guest of honor, riding on the float. That was one of the few times Schroth could be found sitting still since her recovery. Where does her energy and drive come from? “Most people are motivated. I’m just remarkably nuts,” she says with a chuckle. Schroth’s sense of humor combined with a deep curiosity of the world around her—especially science—is ever present. So it isn’t surprising to see her Ms. Wheelchair crown sitting on top of a stuffed toy microbe in her bedroom. As if her calendar was not already crammed, Schroth also recently started helping out at “The Ave,” a place for high school students to socialize and to meet for Bible study. “Sam is a volunteer leader,” says Pastor Zach Gebert, youth and outreach pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in nearby Appleton. “Her joy, optimism and excitement about life are impressive. She always has a smile on her face. There is no bitterness about the accident, no despair about what has happened. Instead, she has an amazing positivism. She understands in a vivid way that although her life has changed, God has a plan for her. “She’s working with 40 to 50 kids. And she’s really good at reaching out to them and letting them know they are valued. Her disability does not get in the way, and it certainly doesn’t slow her down. When she first meets one of these young people, she’s likely to make a joke about it, to put people at ease.” Schroth’s deep religious faith underlies her positive attitude. On her blog, which she titles “Never Sitting Still,” she wrote: “Why does someone get injured in a freak accident, changing their life forever in a split second? Why? To be completely honest with you that really isn’t a question I’ve struggled with since all this happened. I guess I’ve always had this belief that everything happens for a reason. That God knows the direction he wants us to go in, and he has our lives all figured out, even when we don’t know.” But she admits that naturally she misses some things: “I miss being 6 feet tall. I miss being able to get things out of a cupboard. I miss being able to stop and not have to worry about still moving [in her wheelchair]. I miss going up stairs without help. I miss doing situps. I miss feeling the weight of a pet on my lap.” She misses, too, the last time she felt waves lapping against her legs, the sand between her toes. There is more to miss: “the last time I descended a set of stairs. The last time I walked.” But she is just as quick to say, “I don’t want to be portrayed as an object of pity or a girl who wants to walk again, and that's the only way I'll ever amount to anything. Don't get me wrong, it'd be great. But I'm very content and will make a difference in my wheeling form. More importantly, I'm very blessed to be living the life I currently have in my awesome lime-green wheelchair. My life isn't easy, but it's worth every single moment.” Schroth admits she has bad days. “But then, who doesn’t?” she says. “Everyone has bad days. And they pass.” And that while some doors may have been closed to her, “so many more have been opened in places I never could have imagined when I started this journey.” One new opportunity is her passion for medicine. She intends “to pursue that with every fiber of my body (even the nonfunctional ones.)” Her injury also opened “the doors that have allowed me to learn about the disabled community and educate those around me. Or advocacy.” Change is constant in her life these days, continually learning how to adapt. “I live in a world made for people who walk,” she says. “But I believe that life is what you make of it. I plan on making mine awesome, even if I have to do it from a seated position."
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