A Caregiver’s Story by Ashley Pikel
Caregivers play an often silent and overlooked role in the successful rehabilitation of people living with severe illness or injury. Sara Schultz, the wife of professional Motocross and Snocross racer Monster Mike Schultz, recently shared her experience as a caregiver following Mike’s devastating accident and resulting amputation.
You never see blood in Snocross. Sara’s mind struggled to assimilate her knowledge of the sport with the glistening evidence on the snow before her. Her eyes moved from the crimson splash to her husband. As Mike’s eyes rolled back into his head she grabbed his helmet and forcefully said, “You stay with me. You look at me.” With another injured rider already occupying the emergency medical staff, this marked the beginning of Sara’s journey as caregiver. On that grim December day in 2008, it involved hauling her husband onto a stretcher. Over time, it would involve much more.
Any person who takes on the role of emergency caregiver is in a unique and stressful situation. As a nurse, Sara was no stranger to this. However, as she dropped to her knees at the bottom of the hill, she was struck by the horrific truth—“This is my husband.” Sara quickly went into nurse mode and stabilized Mike, helping him breathe. She thinks back to that time and remembers, “I have Mike’s blood all over me. It’s just like, okay, now what? You just pray.” At one point Mike grabbed her hand and said, “Sara, I’m never racing again. I’m never doing this again.” Sara looked at him and replied, “You can’t say that right now. We’re going to get through this.”
When they arrived at the little hospital near the Ironwood Springs race course, Sara instinctively took the oxygen off the wall, jumping into the fray. She already knew “that’s how we’ll get through this,” caring for Mike with her head, hands and heart. Her professional training and experience supported her on this frightening journey with the man she loved, together since high school.
It took two and a half hours before Mike and Sara would be able to leave the tiny hospital and travel to a major medical center for surgery. With a record setting snowstorm bearing down upon them, the only available route to the Duluth hospital was by ambulance. Sara knew they were in for a torturous ride. The ambulance had no extra room in the back and they were prepared to leave Sara behind, especially given the hazardous driving conditions. She insisted on riding in the ambulance with her husband, signing the consent form that allowed her to ride in the front seat. As she signed she thought, “I don’t care about the danger. I just need to be with Mike.” Two treacherous hours later they arrived in Duluth. In the emergency room Sara witnessed twelve nurses and doctors swarming Mike. She felt a twinge of relief, grateful that someone was taking care of him.
Sara stepped away while Mike was whisked off for examination and critical care. She found solace in a small room where a chaplain joined her. Sara shared with him what she was going through. She understood that what appeared to be just broken bones was “really more serious.” Chaplain Bob, experienced in tragedy, said she was eerily calm in a situation where others would easily panic.
Soon after, she was briefed on the six hour surgery that would determine Mike’s fate. When Mike was wheeled away for surgery, Sara lost control because she wasn’t with him anymore. It didn’t help that the worst snowstorm in Duluth history was quickly taking over the city. Sara’s mom could not make it to the hospital to comfort her daughter as her son-in-law faced surgery. Sara recalls, “It was like the world was shutting down at that moment in time.”
Despite her nursing experience, Sara was shocked at the sight of her husband after his first surgery. Swollen, with eight IV lines and numerous other medical devices tethering him to life, she thought, “This is a leg injury!” Sara did not leave Mike. As fast as blood was being pumped into him, it was draining out just as quickly. A squeeze from Mike’s hand was the most Sara got on day two.
That night Sara came to terms with the idea that Mike’s leg might need to be amputated. She recalls, “No one told me that. Doctors would look at each other, but wouldn’t admit as much out loud. I think if I couldn’t have come to terms with it as quickly as I did, Mike could have been in more trouble.” The next morning Sara spoke with Mike’s doctor. He explained that he had done everything he could and consulted everyone. Sara then spoke the words that the doctor couldn’t: “We need to amputate.” He replied, “Yes. We do.”
What follows is one of the most harrowing experiences of Sara’s life. As Mike went through the arduous journey of life after amputation, Sara put into use vital skills and practices that kept her and Mike afloat. Of the many ways Sara coped with her caregiving experience, three stand out.
Sara educated herself.
As a nurse, Sara had cared for a few amputee patients, but she did not have extensive experience with the operation itself and the long recovery. The longest night of both their lives was immediately after the amputation. Sara remembers, “The nurse gave Mike every single medication. It didn’t even touch him.” It was worse than the initial accident. “We were supposed to be moving forward, not back.” As a result, Sara began to research every single bit of information she could find regarding amputation and compiled it into a three ring notebook to care for Mike. She grilled the nurses, asking about every piece of equipment in the room. Sara’s research combined with her minor in Sports Medicine greatly aided her during this time. She will always remember the words their doctor spoke before they took Mike home for the first time. With excitement overwhelming the couple, Sara told the doctor, “I don’t want to do something wrong. I want to make sure I’m doing it right.” The doctor replied, “There is no right or wrong. You are a good team and you’ll get through this.” Sara’s proactive research and the couple’s teamwork gave them the strength to make it.
Sara allowed herself to receive care from others.
After Sara saw Mike for the last time before his amputation, she walked toward the waiting room, crying and shaking. She collapsed on the floor as her mom held her. She cried in front of people she knew and people she didn’t. But she knew what she needed and allowed herself to let go and accept her mother’s embrace. As Mike’s recovery continued, Sara’s best friend would come by and “shove a granola bar in my face and I would go back and take care of Mike. My best friend took care of me so I could take care of Mike.” Sara also participated in a website where their family could post updates and receive encouragement from family and friends.
Sara adapted and reacted to the situation.
Part of Sara’s job as a nurse means making patients more comfortable. The inability to make Mike more comfortable was heartbreaking for her. On one visit to the doctor’s office, the doctor commented, “This can be forever.” Sara said, “This cannot be forever. We are not functioning.” From that moment on she took control of the situation. When Mike reached the point of banging his head on the wall because the pain was so great, Sara would distract him. When Mike experienced phantom leg pain, she researched alternative therapies. They even took Mike to the doctor to see if he had some other injury that was causing pain. They were grateful to find out he had only hurt his leg.
Throughout Sara’s journey as a caregiver, the number one question she receives is why she lets Mike ride again. Her answer, she says, is simple. “It’s that smile on his face. That big huge grin on his face when he gets off the bike. That smile. Done. It’s his life and it’s become my life, too. We’re back doing what we love and that is the most rewarding thing in the entire world.”
With this answer, it’s clear that Sara is more than a caregiver in the medicinal sense. Sara cares for Mike—his health, his happiness and their future. She explains, “It’s way more than winning the race. It’s more about everything he’s endured, I’ve endured, we’ve done, to get to this point.”
With emotion heavy in her voice, Sara reflects, “I’m the one that saw it. Mike lived it, but he didn’t live it the same way I did. I was able to let myself move on, but it will always upset me. Would I turn back time and change it? Yes. But can I now? You make the best of it. We’re racing again when we thought we would never be back. Life is very good.”