Dan Schmidt has a vivid memory of the 25-foot free fall that may or may not have caused his paraplegia in April.
He was in a lift bucket on his and his wife Kristin’s property near Blakeley when it got snagged on a branch. The slingshot effect that ensued sent Dan into the back of the bucket before it sent him sailing to the grass beneath him. The impact shattered several ribs and fractured his wrist. Dan landed flat on his back, a fact his doctors said may have saved his life, or at least spared him from becoming a quadriplegic. But because Dan was spared from any head injury, he never lost consciousness throughout the ordeal, so he was able to reach into his pocket to call Kristin and his siblings who live in the area. The favorable nature of his fall cemented Dan’s belief in angels, he said.
While he was able to move his arms, Dan could not stand up or move his legs, so he knew something was wrong.
“When I knew I broke my back, I told my brother, ‘You better just request an air transfer right away,’” Dan said from his screened-in front porch last Sunday, July 19.
Dan then began a three-month battle for recovery from within the walls of varying medical facilities. Due to the coronavirus, he did so without the physical presence of his family.
Doctors told him he broke his back at his T-12 vertebra, the backbone that lies directly behind his belly button, in layman’s terms. Dan’s accident on April 11, one day before Easter Sunday, caused significant swelling, so doctors needed to wait to operate until Dan’s body normalized.
Three teams of doctors then began a three-phased, 12-hour surgery to salvage Dan’s mobility.
The first team was tasked with shifting Dan’s organs out of the way of his spine, the next placed a permanent cage laden with his own bone around his spine, and the third team placed his organs back in place to finalize the surgery, according to Kristin.
“They had to reassemble him almost like Humpty Dumpty,” Kristin said.
Dan then began his road to recovery, during which he witnessed history unfold from his hospital bed.
Toward the beginning of his hospital time, COVID-19 took the life of one of the doctors at HCMC, prompting a large processional that passed a matter of yards from Dan’s window.
That was before the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. At that point, Dan witnessed protests and riots unfold, still without the company of his family. But he was able to get his hands on a device equipped with the increasingly popular video conferencing Zoom application, which the couple described as a “lifesaver.”
All told, Dan spent two weeks at HCMC, followed by his acute rehabilitation at Abbot Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, from which Dan finally returned home on Friday, July 3.
“My thoughts were that there were so many good people,” Dan said. “I can’t imagine the hundreds of people who had their hands on me.”
“All the people I met and socialized with at the hospital, nobody talked about money,” he later added.
As Dan began to finish his thought, a dull rumbling began emerging from his driveway, causing a puzzled look to form on his face. Slowly but surely, the dull rumbling grew into the unmistakable roar of tractor engines.
“There’s someone here to see you,” Kristin said with a sheepish grin.
Dan’s confusion turned to elation when he realized that a line of tractors laden with eager passersby that began to pass the couple’s driveway was for him.
Moments prior to the couple’s interview with the Herald, a crowd of about 25-35 tractor operators and passengers began to form at u4ic Brewing in Blakeley proper, which is just down the road from the Schmidts’ property.
The plan, which was hatched by friend Jon Luedloff and brought to fruition by Dan’s brother Lee Schmidt, was to hold a tractor processional in Dan’s honor to welcome him home from the hospital.
“He likes tractors and old machinery,” Luedloff said, “so we thought we should do a parade.”
With the assistance of Kristin and a pair of walking sticks one might find with a hiker, Dan was able to rise and walk to greet the procession with what appeared to be faint tears in his eyes.
Soon that crowd filled an open patch of grass on the couple’s property where Dan greeted them.
“It’s a lot of effort for little old me,” Dan told the Herald from within the crowd. “This is unbelievable.”
As a fuel, oil and propane seller at Ag Partners, Dan has gotten to know many of those who took part in the surprise processional on a personal and professional level, and he recognized more than a few of the faces in the crowd from that lens. He expressed some nervousness about the fact that the parade participants were not wearing masks but was ultimately thrilled by their presence.
“Boy, when you’re part of a small town, everyone comes together and is there for you,” Dan said. “It’s very humbling. I had a tremendous number of people say prayers for me, and it certainly paid off.”
After some time, the party returned to u4ic for an afternoon celebration, which Dan attended from a seated enclave.
“It was really touching for a lot of people,” Luedloff said. “A lot of people haven’t seen him since his accident.”
For now, Dan will continue his regular rehabilitation process for anywhere from 3-6 months or more in the hopes that he will regain the ability to walk “without thinking about it.” That process will involve him regaining the ability to fully lift his right leg as well as toning his core muscles, which will allow him to stabilize himself while standing. He hopes to return to work on Sept. 1.