Almanac

News - July 24, 2013

Menlo Park fire chief returns home after crippling fall

by Sandy Brundage

A twisting ladder broke Harold Schapelhouman's body, but not his heart.

"There is the irony of falling off a ladder in your own backyard," he said.

After three decades in a career that saw him deployed for 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, Katrina and local emergencies too numerous to count, the fire chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is used to saving lives rather than being saved.

"You wonder why things happen. I used to say 'life isn't fair.' It's easier to say when it isn't you," Chief Schapelhouman said. Life as a firefighter offers ample examples of bad things happening to good people. "Something bad happened to me."

When the Almanac talked to the chief at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose on July 16, he was looking forward to going home the next day, knowing a different kind of life was waiting there.

"I'm OK. I'm just broken."

'Adapt. Improvise. Overcome'

The weight of a set of extendable yard clippers yanked him off balance and off the twisting ladder "like a guy on a tightrope," he said. The chief fell and blacked out, then came to still clutching the tool like firefighters are trained to do.

He was lying in a pool of blood on the ground. "I knew it was bad."

A neighbor, Dustin Yoder, called over a fence to see if all was OK. Hearing a "no"' he started gathering the cavalry, following the chief's instructions along the way.

"Apparently I started telling everybody what to do after that," Chief Schapelhouman said. "Which is scary because I don't remember what I said." Duty still came first; he's grateful he was cognizant enough to immediately hand off control of the fire district.

He praised the San Jose firefighters who arrived at the scene — "they were incredible" — and the medical personnel who have guided him through the long days since the May 11 accident. Used to leaving patients in the emergency room, he's found "a whole different level of respect" for what happens after the first responders leave.

Chief Schapelhouman said he's gone for "the full hospital experience," with complication after complication requiring multiple surgeries. The physical fitness that served him well at work presents a danger now: When your blood pressure is normally low, even a small drop — a common complication with spinal cord injuries — carries potentially lethal consequences.

His right hand works; the left, not so much. He can't walk. Re-learning how to handle daily life, starting with getting out of bed, took hours of painstaking work and drew upon the creativity exercised by firefighters in the field.

"They've learned a few things from me here," he said with a grin. That overflow slot in the sink, for instance, turns out to work great for holding a toothbrush.

The doctors estimate it'll take up to two years before they know whether he'll improve. He eschews painkillers and antidepressants.

Lada, his wife, attends her own training sessions at the hospital, learning how to provide care for a husband who wishes she didn't have to.

"I have to get over it. But she's my partner, not my caregiver," the chief said. After a pause, he added, "It's one thing to do something to yourself. It's another to do something to your family. That's worse."

His hospital roommate, coincidentally a man he's known for 10 years, arrived at the hospital the same day. Their arrival delivered two spinal traumas to a unit that hadn't seen any for six months.

Through the hospital's rehabilitation program he's met other firefighters with broken backs, a judge, a SLAC engineer ("He cheated at cards," the chief said; the group played poker to develop their fine motor skills). A 20-year-old girl.

"Everyone has bad days here. But there are benefits, as crazy as that sounds," he said. "It's not easy. You learn how strong you can be, how weak you can be, how emotional you can be. I've cried more in this place — not always in a negative way. My roommate is the most inappropriately funny guy, like Patch Adams."

The road ahead

He and Lada had already been talking about retirement. The chief decided he wanted seven more years, to get to 40 years of service.

That hasn't changed. He plans on coming back to work, although when remains uncertain. "I don't want this to be the way I go out."

That's not to say that 66 days in the hospital, with plenty of time to think, hasn't raised doubts. "Is this my ego? Is it just what I want? Those are the questions I ask myself," he said.

It'll be harder, he knows that, but "usually I'm out at the scene talking to you guys" rather than working alongside the emergency crew. Other opportunities beckon on the horizon, perhaps politics, or another type of community service.

"Just because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't mean I can't run an organization. Leadership's a big word. I think I still have the capacity to provide that. If I thought I couldn't do it, I'd step away."

He grinned. "(But) I may be a little bit shorter."

Yet Harold Schapelhouman, sitting in a wheelchair, stands taller than he ever has.

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