Into the wild blue yonder

Heath­er Schultz has battled migh­tily to cope with dis­ab­il­ity that res­ul­ted from a pool ac­ci­dent. Her latest ac­com­plish­ment is a flight-train­ing pro­gram that has en­abled her to soar to ex­hil­ar­at­ing heights.

Un­til re­l­at­ively re­cently in her young but event­ful life, Heath­er Schultz nev­er really thought about learn­ing to fly.

For much of the last five years, in fact, the 26-year-old has been largely pre­oc­cu­pied with some much more ba­sic les­sons, like re-learn­ing how to walk, how to feed her­self, how to dress her­self and a mul­ti­tude of oth­er tasks that most folks take for gran­ted.

Schultz, a Cin­nam­in­son, N.J., nat­ive, was 21 when she dove in­to a friend’s back­yard pool, hit the wa­ter in­cor­rectly, broke her neck and suffered a para­lyz­ing spin­al cord in­jury. Now, she’s con­sidered a quad­ri­ple­gic.

But im­paired use of her arms, legs, hands and feet hasn’t stopped Schultz from em­bark­ing on a new, pre­vi­ously un­ima­gin­able life as a re­cre­ation­al pi­lot. Last year, she learned to fly, thanks to a non-profit pro­gram foun­ded in 2006 by a North Car­o­lina-based avi­ation writer and en­thu­si­ast, Charles H. Stites.

“I didn’t have any­thing else to do, for one,” Schultz said re­cently when asked to ex­plain her in­terest in the Able Flight pro­gram.

“I wasn’t totally com­fort­able with the idea, but I wanted to prove that if I put my mind to something, I could do it. I may be slow on the ground, but my brain still works.”

Even without the fly­ing as­pect, Schultz’s story is one of per­sever­ance over tra­gic mis­for­tune and in the face of seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able odds.

As a 21-year-old, she at­ten­ded a party at a friend’s house. At one point dur­ing the night, she jumped in­to the pool. But in­stead of sli­cing through the wa­ter like a dol­phin, she fell awk­wardly and struck the sur­face with the side of her head, res­ult­ing in a force­ful im­pact.

“The way I hit the wa­ter, I didn’t have my hands out,” Schultz said. “I in­stantly fell to the bot­tom of the pool. I was para­lyzed.”

She would later learn that she had broken three cer­vical ver­teb­rae, but med­ic­al at­ten­tion wasn’t im­me­di­ately forth­com­ing.

Her friends pulled her out of the pool and took her in­to the house, where they laid her down. Nobody called an am­bu­lance un­til the next morn­ing. Schultz re­mem­bers little of the epis­ode.

“They moved me around and shouldn’t have,” she said.

Once she made it to Cooper Uni­versity Hos­pit­al in Cam­den, the med­ic­al staff im­me­di­ately placed her in an ex­tern­al neck-sta­bil­iz­ing device known as a halo. They used sev­er­al screws to at­tach the met­al ring to her skull.

The former Cin­nam­in­son High soc­cer, soft­ball and bas­ket­ball standout un­der­went emer­gency sur­gery that night.

The dis­aster pre-empted her col­lege plans. She was sup­posed to start classes in the nuc­le­ar medi­cine tech­no­logy pro­gram at Gloucester County Col­lege two weeks later.

“They didn’t give me an an­swer when I first asked if I’d be able to walk again,” Schultz re­called.

Dur­ing the sur­gery, doc­tors in­ser­ted a device known as a “cage” in­to her neck to sta­bil­ize the dam­aged ver­teb­rae.

Weeks later, after com­ing out of in­tens­ive care at Cooper, she over­heard her doc­tor tell her fath­er that her pro­gnos­is for even a par­tial re­cov­ery was not prom­ising.

But nobody broached the sub­ject with her.

Just over three weeks later, Schultz was trans­ferred to Magee Re­hab­il­it­a­tion Hos­pit­al in Cen­ter City, where she spent the next three months in in­tens­ive in­pa­tient ther­apy.

“Ini­tially at Magee, it was tough. I would just get naus­eous. I couldn’t really get to ther­apy,” she said.

“I was on a vent­il­at­or for a while. I couldn’t breathe on my own.”

Even­tu­ally, the routine be­came a 7:30 or 8 a.m. wake-up call, break­fast, oc­cu­pa­tion­al ther­apy, phys­ic­al ther­apy, lunch, more ther­apy, din­ner and back to bed. This happened day after day.

“It’s like there’s a whole pro­cess of mourn­ing,” Schultz said. “First you go through a deni­al phase, then bar­gain­ing, then you’re angry and then ac­cept­ance.

“The whole time I was say­ing, ‘I’m go­ing to walk,’ and I had my whole fam­ily there say­ing things. But I don’t like people say­ing I’m able to (walk now) be­cause I wanted it enough. That’s dis­reg­ard­ing the whole sci­ence of it.”

Oc­cu­pa­tion­al ther­ap­ist Gina Cooke and Schultz formed a spe­cial bond at Magee.

“She was very driv­en and very mo­tiv­ated,” Cooke said. “She tried to have a pos­it­ive out­look on her situ­ation. She had her good days and her bad days. But as her re­cov­ery moved along, she had more good days.”

After her re­lease from the hos­pit­al and re­turn home, Schultz con­tin­ued with ex­tens­ive out­pa­tient ther­apy. For sev­en months, she re­turned to Magee for daily ses­sions. After that, the re­gi­men was gradu­ally scaled back to four days a week, then three.

Typ­ic­ally, with spin­al cord in­jur­ies like Schultz’s, pa­tients may con­tin­ue to re­gain func­tion­al­ity for up to two years.

“They tell you what you have after two years is what you’re go­ing to have,” she said. “So it’s not like I’m go­ing to get up one day and do cartwheels, al­though I might feel like (I could do) it some­times.”

Now, the right side of Schultz’s body has bet­ter mo­bil­ity, but less feel­ing than her left side, which is more sens­it­ive to tem­per­at­ure and pain. She has a lot more dex­ter­ity in her right hand than her left. She can walk with a cane, but it’s very de­mand­ing, so she of­ten uses a wheel­chair or a scoot­er at the su­per­mar­ket or shop­ping mall.

It’s a per­petu­al struggle to main­tain func­tion­al­ity.

“With Heath­er, she has to con­tin­ue go­ing to ther­apy or con­tin­ue to work out to main­tain her level,” Cooke ad­ded. “It’s like, use it or lose it. It’s a life­time com­mit­ment.”

That’s how fly­ing air­planes entered the pic­ture.

The staff at Magee gen­er­ally en­cour­ages pa­tients to get in­volved in ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies. The hos­pit­al has its own wheel­chair sports co­ordin­at­or. About three years after her in­jury, Schultz learned about the wheel­chair rugby pro­gram and at­ten­ded a prac­tice.

The oth­er play­ers re­fused to let her sit idly on the side­lines. In­stead, they re­cruited her.

“Most of the people have spin­al cord in­jur­ies, and some are am­putees,” Schultz said.

Be­ing able to so­cial­ize with oth­ers who are con­fron­ted by sim­il­ar cir­cum­stances ad­ded a new fa­cet to her emo­tion­al re­cov­ery.

“I had friends com­ing to see me (at home), but they really didn’t un­der­stand what I’m go­ing through,” Schultz said. “It was tough to stay con­nec­ted. They feel sorry and really don’t know what to say.

“With rugby, you see people in the same situ­ation and you get to com­pare notes. You get to know people really quickly, and they get it,” she ad­ded.

Next for Schultz came road ra­cing. She entered the Broad Street Run in May 2010. As one of two fe­male wheel­chair entrants, Schultz was al­most guar­an­teed a medal and a mon­et­ary prize for pla­cing in her di­vi­sion, as long as she man­aged to fin­ish the gruel­ing 10-mile race.

Un­for­tu­nately, the old ra­cing-style chair that she bor­rowed didn’t read­ily co­oper­ate. Her legs were in an awk­ward po­s­i­tion, and one of the tires kept los­ing air.

The wheel­chair ath­letes star­ted minutes ahead of the rest of the field, but it wasn’t very long be­fore the race-lead­ing Kenyan men star­ted passing her, fol­lowed by hun­dreds of oth­er run­ners.

“It was a very hum­bling ex­per­i­ence,” she said.

It also be­came a very in­spir­ing ex­per­i­ence as spec­tat­ors and fel­low com­pet­it­ors formed a chain of en­cour­age­ment and sup­port. At one point, someone helped her stop at a gas sta­tion on Broad Street to re­fill her tire with air.

“Every­body thinks run­ning is an in­di­vidu­al sport, but I had this whole team of people help­ing me, and they wouldn’t fin­ish un­til I fin­ished,” Schultz said.

Around the same time, she also learned about Able Flight, a non-profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that ar­ranges and funds flight train­ing for people with spin­al cord in­jur­ies, mil­it­ary-re­lated in­jur­ies or cer­tain con­gen­it­al impair­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to Stites, the founder, 19 people have ob­tained pi­lot li­censes through the pro­gram, and many oth­ers have par­ti­cip­ated in flight train­ing.

As a long­time avi­ation writer and pho­to­graph­er, Stites learned of a sim­il­ar pro­gram in Great Bri­tain, but he was un­able to find one in the United States. So he star­ted one with the help of many long­time con­tacts in the avi­ation in­dustry.

Fly­ing an air­plane is lib­er­at­ing phys­ic­ally and emo­tion­ally to Able Flight train­ees, but the learn­ing pro­cess is de­mand­ing.

“It is a chal­lenge that really gets to the emo­tion­al side of life and in­tel­lec­tu­al side of life,” Stites said. “There is a phys­ic­al chal­lenge.

“I’ve been fly­ing for thirty years, and I use my feet and hands like all pi­lots, and it would be a real chal­lenge (for me) to fly only with my hands.”

The pro­gram is in­tens­ive and takes five to six weeks to com­plete. Train­ees learn in the classroom and in the air and must be able to per­form the same man­euvers that a non-im­paired pi­lot can do.

They use a small sport plane ret­ro­fit­ted with spe­cial hand con­trols that re­place foot ped­als. There are only about 20 in the United States. A former Able Flight train­ee and cur­rent board mem­ber, Sean O’Don­nell, owns one of the planes and has opened his own flight school at New Castle County Air­port in Delaware.

Schultz con­siders O’Don­nell her avi­ation ment­or. In June 2010, she traveled to Purdue Uni­versity in In­di­ana for her train­ing. Purdue op­er­ates one of the na­tion’s lead­ing avi­ation pro­grams.

While on one of her first solo flights, Schultz took a par­tic­u­larly hard land­ing that dam­aged the plane.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It comes more eas­ily to some than oth­ers,” she said. “I did want to leave at that point, but I knew if I left I’d re­gret it later.”

She was back in the air two days later and went on to earn her li­cense.

“Be­com­ing a pi­lot was al­most sec­ond­ary to what I took away from the pro­gram,” Schultz said.

“It gives you the con­fid­ence to em­bark on fu­ture en­deavors that oth­er­wise you may not want to (do) or you feel you wouldn’t be able to handle it. I will go for­ward with (fly­ing), but I will get some more les­sons and go with oth­er people who are pi­lots, be­cause there is still much more to learn.” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

Flight in­form­a­tion …

Vis­it­ for in­form­a­tion about Able Flight.

Vis­it www.mageere­ for in­form­a­tion about Magee Re­hab­il­it­a­tion.

You can reach at

comments powered by Disqus