Baby steps: Schmidt’s inspiring comeback
Is this the same Pat Schmidt?This person who hikes strong and fast up towering mountains, and carries on conversations almost like she used to – is this really her?It couldn’t be. Less than two years ago Pat Schmidt couldn’t speak a word. Three years before that she was learning to crawl, then walk, then tie her shoe. Yet today Schmidt – and the rest of her 15-member team, Light the Fire Within – will scale 14,110-foot Pikes Peak. They will start before dawn, at 5:30 a.m., and climb until mid-afternoon. If it goes as it did last year, Schmidt will be one of the fastest climbers on her team.The hike is called the Pikes Peak Challenge, an annual fundraiser held for brain injury research and awareness. Its participants know all too well how important the cause is.***Pat Schmidt is 48 years old. In many ways though, she is only 5.On Aug. 11, 1999, Schmidt – a Summit County resident of nearly 25 years – was preparing for the Outdoor Retailers Summer Market convention in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. She and her husband Larry were setting up their sunglass booth when a freak F2 tornado struck. The killer storm touched down without warning and ravaged the city with winds greater than 150 mph, leaving one dead and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The Schmidts, like many of the thousands who were affected, never saw what hit them.Although the chaos lasted only about 30 seconds, it changed Pat’s life forever. Larry found her face down under a plywood wall, unconscious. She had been knocked into a human dimension nobody has ever been able to fully explain, and spent the next 48 days in a coma.Her condition was diagnosed as traumatic brain injury (TBI), and to this day it remains unclear exactly how it was caused. (Some think her skull may have been shaken too fast for her brain to keep up; others suggest it was a direct blow to the head.)
Back to the beginningWhen Pat woke up, she was reduced to the capacity of a newborn. She had to relearn everything, including how to walk. “I got to help raise her twice,” jokes her sister Kay, 10 years her elder.Pat’s progress was rapid in the months after the accident. By Christmas Eve she was home, taking steps with the help of a walker. It has only gotten better since then.”She has a smile on her face every morning,” says Larry. “She’s never down, she’s always got a bright, smiley attitude.”I’m just thankful that she has the opportunity. Most people don’t get the opportunity to be reborn, to come back from death. The simple fact that she has today, that she has tomorrow, that she had yesterday …”An avid outdoorswoman before the accident, Pat has regained nearly all of her active abilities in the five years since. She hikes about twice a week in the warmer months – largely to prepare for the 7,400-plus-foot ascent of Pikes Peak, which she’s done the past four summers – and once again is skiing black diamond runs in the winter.According to those around her, it is Pat’s unique and inspiring personality that has carried her through the tough times.”She has an amazing determination and will,” says Shauna Bocksch, Pat’s life skills trainer, who spends four days a week with her.”I think anybody that knows her and knew her before just expects it,” says Larry. “That’s her personality. It has been all her life.”
Fittingly, Pat was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for a portion of its journey before the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. It was fitting not only because of her ties to the host city, but also because, in a way, she embodies the Olympic spirit.Like the athletes who work tirelessly for an event years in the distance, Pat has done the same to regain her identity.Family of fightersWhen it comes to perseverance, Pat didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer at age 52, but beat it. Then she got a different type, and beat that too. Incredibly, by the time she died, 30 years after the initial diagnosis, she’d beaten seven kinds of cancer.Pat’s dad fought a similar battle, staving off colon cancer for two years before he passed away when Pat was young.Love, deep and from all sides, has played a large role in Pat’s ability to continue her progression when others might have failed.This part starts with Larry. Lovebirds even in the most difficult times, Pat and Larry met through a mutual friend two decades ago and have been united as one ever since.”You read the statistics on marriages that survive these kinds of things, and it’s not a good number,” says Kathy Skulski, who knew the Schmidts before they shared the same last name, and who will be on Pat’s team in today’s hike. “But Larry has never left her side. It’s kind of funny, really, the way their roles are the same as they were before the accident: Pat was always the taskmaster, and Larry just wanted to play. It’s still that way now.”Despite all the progress, and the unwavering support that has enabled it, the tragic reminders remain. Due to a condition called aphasia, Pat is still unable to communicate without struggling. She’s all “there” inside, and comprehends everything, but can’t elicit her thoughts.Still, it’s not as bad as it once was – Pat has gone from no speech, to words, to sentences. And her speech therapist, Sherri Steeves, says she thinks Pat will have regained all of her speaking ability within four years.
***It’s a sobering sight to see this woman, a Fulbright Scholar coming out of college who is fluent in German, unable to live the life she’d known for almost half a century.It hurts those around her.”I’ll never understand it,” Skulski says of the accident, tears in her eyes. “I still struggle with it. It makes me so mad.”Yet the one who should be madder than them all, Pat, is perhaps the most at peace.Asked how she’s feeling, Pat says, “I am happy. I am feeling good. I am feeling great.” At this point, there is another thought she wants to get out, but she can’t. It’s trapped inside.She calmly reaches for a pad of paper she keeps close by, writes a single word and hands it over.”Alive,” it says.Yes, this is the same Pat Schmidt.Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at email@example.com.
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