Menlo Park fire chief returns home after crippling fall


By Sandy Brundage

Almanac Staff Writer

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.


Like this comment
Posted by Charles Marsala
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 7:04 am


Best wishes for your recovery and future. I know all you have done to save so many lives over the years including my home town of New Orleans after Katerina.

The foundation you laid in Menlo has improved the lives of not only the present but future generations.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 24, 2013 at 8:16 am

Best wishes to you Chief. I hope you get back to work at the fire department. You've got a great organization there.

Like this comment
Posted by Len Chesmore
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 9:44 am

Harold, The entire US&R community is there at your side hoping your health will continue to improve and you will be able to realize your dreams. Thanks for all that you have done in serving the public.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

What a terrifying, humbling, painful & confusing experience. I've been thinking of the Chief and his family ever since I heard this bad news.

Here in E. Palo Alto, we're lucky to have such a great team of expert fire/safety personnel.

As one who recently recovered from a very serious illness, I know how strange it is to suddenly rely, 24/7, on others for your every day needs & well-being.

Continuing to send healing vibes your way, Chief, & wishing your family well.

Like this comment
Posted by Carol Butler
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm


Not a day goes by that I haven't thought of you and think howmGod let this happen to you. But He knew what He was doing as He got a guy that will show Him who's Boss and get back at living a full life. You are one very special man and have always been there to help others. I know your tough spirit will help you through this and will see you back at a lot of your routine.

I think we need to get you on a local TV show as that was always your thing. Remember Hollywood Harold loves the camera and the camera loves you. Keep up the good and hard work. I've bet the Exacta on you and in my heart you are always a winner.

Would love to get a visit in with you in the future! Go get em' Chief!


Like this comment
Posted by Retired AC USAR4 Rich Brown
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 1:05 pm


Continue to share your knowledge for many years to come. I hope you decide to pursue making FEMA, USAR and the fire service a better and more cohesive marriage. Politics might be that venue!

Praying for way bro!

Rich Brown

Like this comment
Posted by Mrs. B.
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 24, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Chief Schapelhouman, you are inspirational whether you are standing up or seated in a wheelchair. Your leadership is needed here, in whatever way you decide to move in your public service career. My most sincere best wishes for your recovery.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 24, 2013 at 3:08 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

May you have a speedy recovery.

Like this comment
Posted by M Bentovoja
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 3:43 pm

You've always been a great example of character and integrity, the fall and wheel chair haven't change that! You and Lada are in our thoughts and prayers.


Like this comment
Posted by Liz Hutnick
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Thoughts are with you, Harold. You are a wise teacher, inspiring leader, and an awesome person. Keep on improving and getting better, I know you can do it.

Like this comment
Posted by Rick Martinez, Retired Fire Chief - Sacramento
a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2013 at 11:56 am


I'm thinking of you and your family and praying for the best in your recovery. You have been a good friend and an even better firefighter.

Rick Martinez

Like this comment
Posted by jake
a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2013 at 12:33 pm

hope he heals but he needs to step away from Menlo Fire. The organization is running better without him. Not harsh, just honest.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael Thomas
a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Harold, As I reflect on our first meet, PG&E plant.USAR Training area. I still remember you and Ben preaching. Safety. Yet, as Fire professional we sometime focus on the lives of others. You are a true Fire Professional who gives his all. I saw, and know this first hand. I do wish you a speedy recovery. Stay focus my dear friend, keep your had up and may God bless you and your family.

Chief Thomas

Like this comment
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 25, 2013 at 3:34 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

Mmmm, Jake a MPFD fireman?? always one in every article

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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