Editors note: As a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, Glen Schlotterbeck spent time as a fighter pilot in Europe during the final years of the cold war before becoming a commercial airline pilot. He had been flying for 26 years with Delta Air Lines and had logged nearly 17,000 hours at the time of his accident, which left him in a wheelchair.
I was injured in a kind of freak accident. I was home alone. My kids are grown and live on their own, and my wife was visiting family overseas. When I have a lot of time on my own, I like to get household chores done. On this day, I was up on a second floor balcony standing on a stepladder doing some redwood deck staining. I lost my balance and the stepladder buckled under my weight. I went over the railing and landed in the back yard lawn. I don’t remember anything after falling, but I know when I came to, I couldn’t move. Since no one was home, all I could do was yell for help. It just so happened it was Easter Sunday, and it was the first nice spring day of the year. My neighbor was out doing some yard cleanup and heard me yell for help. He came over and called the paramedics, and away we went.
I didn’t really understand what had happened, because the last thing I knew, I was painting. I woke up, and I was on the ground and couldn’t move. It was a bit frightening. I think I blacked in and out for a while, because I don’t remember a whole lot of the trip to the hospital. Of course, once I got there, they put me on meds, and I went through eight hours of surgery. Come to find out, I had blown out a lumbar disc (L1), but also five to six other vertebrae were fractured. I broke 10 ribs and punctured a lung. I was in pretty bad shape. I don’t really know how I was able to yell for help with a punctured lung and broken ribs, but somehow I did.
Rehab & Recovery
I spent three weeks in the hospital recovering from surgery and then relocated to a rehab facility. I found out that the best place for me was a rehab hospital in the Denver area, so my wife and I made arrangements to move to Colorado. I spent another five weeks as an inpatient at the rehab hospital in Denver. Now, I do my rehab as an outpatient at that hospital. I’m also hooked up with the Veterans Health Administration system. I get some physical therapy from them. They’ve also provided me with some orthotics, so I can stand up with a walker and use forearm crutches to walk around with braces. I’ve worked with the civilian medical rehab system as well. I’ve had access to quite a bit of assistance when it comes to medical and physical therapy.
I blew out L1 and am fused from T11 through L3. From a paralysis standpoint, I have one leg that I can stand on. I have quadriceps and hamstring muscles working and can lock my knee and stand on it. However, from below the knee, there’s not a whole lot going on for that leg, so I use a brace to stabilize my ankle. The other leg, just recently, after about two and a half years, is starting to respond in the hip area, and about halfway down my thigh, I’ve got activity. Below that, I have nothing. I can’t stand on that leg because I cannot lock my knee stiff. I need a full-length leg brace for that leg.
For most people, recovery comes back early, and returns diminish over time. It’s not unheard of to make gains a few years after an injury, but it’s usually meager recovery- less and less over time.
I think these things take so long to recover that most people give up.
I’m not trying to be one of those types. I keep at it and continue to be motivated when I do see things recover, but I have to look back three to five months to recognize the improvements. Day to day, week to week, you just don’t see it.
I’ve always been motivated. I’ve always worked hard; I’ve never been idle for any period of time. My military training has helped. My four years at the Air Force Academy was pretty grueling. Survival training in the military has also helped. Every time I go into rehab, I see other people using the facilities and have become good friends with some of them. I recognize that some people are in worse shape, some are in better shape, and some have rehabbed and are recovering things themselves. If they can do it, I can do it.
Camaraderie develops because we understand each other’s plight and issues, and we try to encourage and motivate each other.
If I see someone that’s just drinking a cup of coffee and socializing instead of lifting weights, I get on them, and they do the same thing. We work together and we make sure we’re there being productive. We just keep at it. Plus, I try to maintain a sense of humor.
Minimizing the Irritants
Since my accident, which is approaching 3 years now, we’ve moved twice. When we initially moved to Colorado for my rehab. We got an apartment for a few months before finding our current home. Moving twice in two and a half years is strenuous. The biggest obstacle was remodeling the new house to make it wheelchair accessible. For instance, we changed the shower to a European roll-in shower with a bench, installed grab rails so I can move from the chair to the toilet, lowered the countertop in the bathroom so I can get close enough to the sink to get a decent shave and close enough to mirror to see myself when combing my hair, etc.
You have to address little daily hygiene issues, so they’re not irritants: a bed that’s the right height, so you’re not struggling to get in and out, or furniture that’s spaced further apart so you can get around the coffee table and get to the sofa, or make your way to the windows to look outside. We addressed all of those irritants as best as we could. There are still some accessibility issues. I can’t get close to the kitchen sink because of the counter and cabinets underneath, so I’m always stretching and reaching. I have no idea what’s on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Reaching things from an accessibility standpoint is very hard. Going out into world, there are places I can’t get to because of stairs, curbs, or narrow doorways. There are a lot of irritants in daily life, but you try to minimize those at home, because that is where you spend most of your time. It’s your refuge. When you go out and about, you find places that are more accommodating for wheelchairs, and those are the places you frequent and support.
This is the Only Life You Get
It’s very easy to just lie in bed all day, because it gets old hopping into a chair and spending the rest of your day there. I find that the easiest way to get on with the day is to make an appointment. If you have a PT appointment at 9am, you have to get up, get ready, drive to the facility, and be ready to go. If you have something on your schedule early in your day, that will get you going. Once you get going, it’s easier to keep going for the rest of the day.
If you think about it, you have two ways to go about your life in this situation: you can give up, and there’s no future in that, or you can try to make the best of it, and move on.
This is the only life you get, so try to improve it and make the best out of your situation. That’s the route I try to take, and I try to keep some humor in it. I was joking just after my accident. The neighbor that I yelled for help to had just moved in about a week earlier, and I hadn’t really met him yet. As the paramedics carried me off on the stretcher, he was walking alongside, and I said, “What a great way to meet the new neighbors!” and he laughed.
I don’t deny that there are periods of self-doubt and depression, but first you have to make a decision: are you going to give up and turn into yourself or are you going to try to make the most of it and get the most out of what remains of your life and interact with the people around you that care about you? You have to make that decision first and then work on a plan. I’m not completely there yet. It’s kind of a work in progress, and I don’t really know exactly what the rest of my life will entail, or how I will apply myself. I don’t really know what I’m going to do as far as employment goes. Obviously, I can’t fly like I’d been doing for 36 years. I have a lot of life experiences and ideas for writing, so I’m thinking about putting them down on paper and trying to get published.
My advice to others would be to figure out how to reinvent yourself. You’re not going to be the person you were before, and maybe you can’t do the things you did and like to do anymore. I like to hike, waterski and snow ski, but I can’t do that anymore. However, I can hand cycle, and there are some other hobbies that I still enjoy. There are also new opportunities that didn’t necessarily appeal to me before or that I had never considered. You have to reinvent yourself, whether that’s with a hobby or employment, or just working on your social relationships, getting back to society, mentoring people or consulting with people. Offering what you know to others is something you can do to give back to society and contribute. Find some volunteer work to do! I’m not going to be building a house, and I’m not going to be crawling under the car to change the oil. There are things I’m not going to be able to do anymore, but I’m still looking for things that I can do.
Stay upbeat, maintain your sense of humor and try to reinvent yourself. Keep busy with hobbies, volunteering, finding a new occupation, or whatever it is, but stay active and don’t turn inward. Turn outward.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to get back into writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!