When Jon Schuetz moved to southwest Florida from the Sioux City area in 2006, he leased a house four blocks from the beach to enjoy everything the ocean had to offer, like swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling.
“Scuba diving—that was always something I wanted to get into. But I never took advantage of it, being that close to the ocean when I was down in Florida,” he says. “I had to get certification in Omaha, Nebraska, where there are no oceans nearby.” In 2016, Schuetz finally went scuba diving in the open ocean off Cayman Brac.
The experience was more than just a fulfillment of a decade-old desire. Schuetz’s time in Florida had been cut short after a 2007 motorcycle accident resulted in a spinal cord injury and paralysis. Scuba diving seemed like an impossible wish in the weeks after his accident, when Schuetz didn’t know how he’d be able to brush his teeth, dress himself, and get around independently as a quadriplegic.
After a total of five weeks of intensive and acute care in a Florida hospital followed by five weeks of acute care at a Sioux City hospital, Schuetz transferred to Quality Living Inc., a post-hospital center for brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation in Omaha.
“I was definitely not ready to go home after the hospital,” he says. “We were looking for the next step in my recovery and were fortunate to find QLI, where I spent six months.”
It took 40 minutes to put on a pair of shoes at the beginning when Schuetz could barely push himself a few feet in his wheelchair, so the initial focus of rehabilitation was to regain his independence. With intensive physical and occupational therapy, Schuetz was able to master everyday tasks.
“It was at QLI where I gained the strength to realize I could be successful in life after a traumatic accident,” Schuetz says.
Over time, he set bigger and broader goals. The former athlete became an athlete once again; besides scuba diving, he has participated in several half-marathons via wheelchair, has kayaked using an accessible dock at Lake Cunningham, and plays in a wheelchair rugby league.
“For me, it was important to be competitive again, to feel like an athlete. For 30 years of my life I was a competitive athlete and just being part of that camaraderie of a team again, that’s huge,” he says.
Being physically active can assist circulation, muscle tone, bone density, and even digestion for a person in a wheelchair, says Ed Armstrong, an adaptive sports and recreation specialist for QLI. Plus, returning to the meaningful activities that enrich one’s life is an important part of long-term recovery.
“It’s about living and not just surviving,” Armstrong says. “We’re all trying to have a fulfilling life.”
During Schuetz’s hospitalization, his life took another unexpected turn when he met a woman (Erin Olson) through friends who stopped by for a visit.
“We had a very genuine conversation and discovered that we had a lot in common. Erin was so spiritual, kind, and compassionate. Even in my condition she did not see me as a person with limitations. Erin would come back to visit me a number of times…As we got to know each other, Erin became my dearest friend,” he says. “This new relationship was the positive influence I needed to push me toward my recovery goals.”
Some adaptations were made to Erin’s house; Schuetz moved in after his discharge from QLI and they began working with a contractor to build an accessible home. A proposal soon followed.
Then came the news that a baby was on the way.
“I had the type of injury where we didn’t know if having kids would even be an option. When we found out about the first one we were ecstatic,” Schuetz says. “And then we ended up having three more.”
The Schuetzes’ four boys are now between the ages of 2 and 9.
“Life got busy in a hurry,” Schuetz says. “They’re into everything, just like I was growing up—all the sports and 4-H activities, Boy Scout meetings, practices and games, doctor and dentist appointments…My wife and children are a reminder each day of how blessed I am. I was given a second chance, to never take anything for granted, or let a moment slip through my fingers.”
In 2010, Schuetz became certified (through the Christopher Reeve Foundation) as a peer mentor and returned to QLI—this time as a staff member—to help launch a new mentoring program. His wife is a teacher, so the couple has chosen to remain in the Sioux City area as Schuetz commutes to Omaha two days a week.
“It’s 90 miles one way for me, but if I’m helping somebody out and they don’t have to learn something the hard way, that makes the drive nothing,” he says.
Armstrong says one of QLI’s goals is “to get people who’ve had a life-changing traumatic event back to the things they love.” For Schuetz, who helped craft the adaptive sports program, it was competitive sports, but for others it’s been a spectrum of activities including fishing, adaptive biking, archery, yoga, golf, go-cart racing, and rock climbing.
“We found that adding those activities to daily therapies for people, they’re more upbeat, they work harder, and they were setting more quantifiable goals for themselves,” Schuetz says. “I always tell people it’s a ‘technical problem.’ You have the vision of what you want to do, and we figure out the how.”
“Jon inspires all of us with his spirit and his wisdom and his patience. He takes the time to listen, and people share with Jon,” Armstrong says. “He can offer advice, support, and guidance for this rehab journey, which is uncharted territory for everybody; no one expects this to happen to them.”
“I enjoy mentoring,” Schuetz says. “If I can be helpful to someone who’s rebuilding their life, just share my experiences and any resources I have that might make an impact on their journey toward their own independence, I’m definitely happy.”
Visit qliomaha.com for more information.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.