Students told: There is power in hope
“Some people actually tell me they feel sorry for me,” began Tasha Schuh as she sat in her wheelchair facing a crowd of Loyal, Greenwood and Granton high schoolers on Jan. 27. As a C5 quadriplegic who lost the use of almost three-fourths of her body after a theatrical accident, she understands why people may feel that way towards her. Her life since the accident has had its difficulties, having to overcome many challenges to even reach the floors of the Loyal High School gym on which she spoke. But would she trade her life now to get back what she lost? No, she said.
“I actually love my life,” she said. “Even my wheelchair.”
Schuh’s path in life seemed pretty clear as she moved through her childhood and school age years. As a teenager, Schuh said she was experiencing life like any other person at that age: dealing with the awkwardness of having a six-foot tall body, participating in school athletics and theatrical productions and fighting against low self esteem. A wheelchair was unforeseen in her future plans, which included using her talents of singing and acting on stage.
“Growing up, I had use of my very tall body,” she said. “I could walk, move my fingers, sing with a pitch-perfect voice.”
In spite of all planning, however, it was her dreams on the stage that put an end to the way of life as she knew it up to that point.
“In November of my junior year of high school, I was 16 years old practicing for our high school production, ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” she said. “It was three days away, I was onstage practicing a scene change when from behind me, somebody removed the trap door from the floor behind me.”
It was that fateful move from out of her line of sight that changed her life forever. One step backward was all it took.
CHEYENNE THOMAS/STAFF PHOTO “I had no idea. Someone told me to move, and to get out of the way, I took a step back,” she said. “I was in utter confusion when I fell onto the hard and unforgiving concrete floor. I fell 16 feet. The thing I heard first was my skull hitting the ground and cracking and then I heard the snapping of vertebrae. I had just broke my neck.”
After being airlifted to the hospital, Schuh said the severity of her condition began to be made clear to her. Listening to the doctors as they diagnosed the problem, she heard words she never expected, nor wanted to hear.
“The doctors began using words in their initial diagnosis. They began using words like ‘paralysis,’ ‘wheelchair,’ ‘quadriplegic,’ and ‘You’ll never be able to walk again,’” she said. “I was one month away from turning 17, I had begun dreaming of the future and a wheelchair wasn’t in it. I wanted to die, I couldn’t think of one reason to live.”
Three days later, she said, she almost got her wish.
“I had a 16-hour neck surgery, when something went wrong,” she said. “The doctors gave me a zero percent chance of surviving. I had a fever of 108 degrees, every organ in my body was shutting down from something called septic shock. They expected me to be dead. The next morning, guess who’s still here?”
She held on for a week in an unstable condition, unconscious, and going in and out of fevers and organ failure. At the end of the week though, she had pulled out of danger of death, and after being told by her family how close she came to the end, she also pulled out of her desire for death.
“When I woke up and saw what a miracle it was that I was still alive, I knew there was a reason I was here,” she said. “Now that I had almost died, I changed my mind, I said, ‘Never mind, I want to be here.’” That, she said, was the first part of coming back and overcoming the adversity of becoming a quadriplegic. There’s a reason everyone exists and something that they alone can accomplish. What exactly that is, Schuh said, is different for every person, but by simply holding on and trying their best in whatever comes their way, anyone can overcome any setback — whether financial, cultural or physical — and end up in a much better place.
“That’s the power of purpose. It’s easy to forget why we’re here or question what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “I am here for a reason. I have a purpose. That’s the same for everyone in this room. You’re valuable, your life matters and you’re destined to do great things … Purpose can be found by being the best you can be.”
Now that she had a purpose and a reason to keep going, Schuh said she had to learn to face the after-effects of the accident. From the chest down, she was paralyzed, not able to move or feel anything. The only parts of her body that she could still move, she said, were her shoulders, arms, neck and head. She could also breathe and eat on her own, but, unable to feel and control her diaphragm, the doctors said she would never be able to sing again.
“I fell into a depression. It was the hardest time of my life,” she said. “Lying in a hospital bed, having to wait until someone comes and gets you dressed, putting my lifeless body into a wheelchair and taking me to therapy and teaching me how to do things that I had been able to do since I was three years old … When I returned home, I thought things would return to normal, but then I realized, there’s no such thing as going back to normal.”
Over time though, Schuh said she was able to work her way through her depression. Every day, she worked to push herself to do more and increase her strength. With help from her doctors, she was able to learn to appreciate even the smallest of victories, such as the ability to move her wrists, which now allows her to eat on her own, write and even drive.
“This is very important,” she said moving her wrists. “It allows me to do quite a few things … I’m not supposed to be able to move my wrists (as a C5 quadriplegic).”
By taking time to appreciate the smallest of things, Schuh told the students they can work their way forward, and eventually overcome their own depression. While there’s a lot of unpredictability in life, she said the one thing people can control is how they react to a situation.
“I needed to focus on what I had, it was important to grieve that,” she said. “But I started creating what I call a gratitude list, what I was thankful for … having an attitude of gratitude makes a difference. I am living proof that depression can be overcome … Life is not about what we can control, we can, however control our attitudes.”
The other thing that helped Schuh overcome her depression and helped her to accept the place she was at now was having support from family and friends. Even though she was suffering through a situation no one else around her had ever experienced, she said her loved ones rallied around her and made sacrifices, bringing them all closer together than ever before.
“I was in the hospital for 160 days, of those days, there were only two evenings that I didn’t have company,” she said. “I had people come 70 miles one way to visit me. My sister made some great sacrifices. She lost two jobs because she was continually at my side. We weren’t that close before the accident, but now all I had to do was look and she knew what I needed.”
Having someone there to talk to and give you a helping hand, Schuh said, is another key to navigating life’s journey. Life can be hard, she said, but it’s even harder when one tries to face their problems alone. Such a strategy too often leads to tragedy.
“As humans, we don’t like to ask for help. But this life is about having a team. You can’t do this race of life alone,” she said. “If you’re struggling, reach out and tell someone. There was a 14-year old man named Logan, he was the son of a close friend of mine. He didn’t feel that he had a team. He did not reach out. He ended his life by age 14. He will never graduate. He will never see the enjoyment of getting a job. He will never be a husband or a father. He will never see the things he had yet in store for him. Yes it’s hard, but we can determine that we’re going to keep going.”
The last piece of advice Schuh wished to give to the students in attendance that day was a message of hope. Even though she had come so far after her accident, overcoming not only severe limitations in mobility but also depression, she said she still had no hope in being able to fulfill her dreams. It wasn’t until she saw what others were able to do in the same situation that she realized there was hope.
“When I had my accident, I never expected to be able to fulfill my dreams because of my wheelchair. I thought it would hold me back from what I wanted to accomplish,” she said. “But after my Mom took me to wheelchair camp, I was so grateful. I saw hundreds of people in wheelchairs. They were happy, successful, married. For the first time, I had true hope.”
Today, Schuh said she is a college graduate with two bachelors degrees, married, the author of two books, and despite the words of the doctors, able to sing once again. Having hope that there will be better times, she said, is important in staying resilient along the path of life.
“Looking back at the hospital, I thought my life was over, but really it was the beginning of a most blessed life I wouldn’t trade with anyone,” she said. “There is power in hope. Take it with you. Things can and will get better.”