With a little help from his friends

With the support of a new four-legged friend and a lot of old ones, Greg Schwab was able to beat the odds.

Elena Rozwadowski

When he looks in the mirror, history senior Greg Schwab sees a small scar at the base of his throat peeking out over his shirt collar.

There are two others on his chest and stomach to match. Both were left by the tubes that kept him alive for nearly two months.

The least visible to Greg is a scar that runs down one side of his spine, concealing two titanium rods and 14 screws that keep his back straight and stable.

This is the one he is most proud of.

For some of his closest friends and family, the scars are a reminder of Greg’s brush with death one year ago.

Last November, he was hit by a Jeep while riding his bike in St. Paul, putting him in a coma for three weeks.

For Greg, his scars have a deeper meaning.

“They remind me that I need to appreciate life,” he said. “I feel more unique and fortunate than ever.”

With three major internal brain injuries and 15 broken bones, including his spine and a punctured lung, doctors expected him to die. At the very least, they expected paralysis or brain damage.

After hundreds of hours of physical therapy and a lot of support from family and friends, Greg is back at the University as a full-time student this semester and walking independently.

Not only does he walk, but he has started rock climbing, swimming and even biking, all things he said he loved to do in what he calls his “past life.”

“I love that I’ve surprised people with this recovery of mine,” he said. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me and my loved ones, but in the worst way.

“I’m tempted to say everything would be different if the accident hadn’t happened.”

A team effort

Although his own determination got him through some of the toughest times, Greg attributes most of his success to his family and friends.

“Saying they were there for me would be an understatement,” he said.

Greg’s parents, for example, took more than a month off work to be with him in the hospital, living in the Intensive Care Unit waiting room at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

After being in a coma for about three weeks, the swelling in Greg’s brain started to go down, so doctors were able to decrease sedation and bring him into consciousness. His family helped to stimulate responses from him, saying his name and holding his hand in those first semiconscious days.

Greg’s dad, Tom Schwab, said his son’s recovery took a lot of prayer and patience.

The accident

Every few weeks, Greg and his friends got together to cook dinner for each other.

That week, the theme was seafood. Greg started out from his house near highway 280 in St. Paul for his friend’s house in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood around 7 p.m. He said there is a hill on Hennepin Avenue that he always liked to bike down very fast, and that night was no exception.

It was cold outside, so Greg had chosen to wear a stocking cap instead of a helmet. When he got to his favorite hill, he tucked his head to keep the wind out of his eyes.

Greg said he could see a Jeep slowing down at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and Industrial Boulevard. Next, he said he saw the headlights start to swing in front of him.

“I remember being very surprised and scared, but that’s about it,” he said.

The next thing he remembered was being transported from the Hennepin County Medical Center to the Physical Rehabilitation Unit at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester just under a month later.

“Thankfully, I don’t remember it,” Greg said. “But there’s a big part of me that wishes I did.”

“He got better millimeter by millimeter,” Tom said. “Anywhere along that continuum of recovery, it can stop, and we knew that.”

One family member really struggled with the accident. Cristen Schwab, Greg’s 21-year-old sister and best friend, said the hardest part for her was being so far away.

Cristen attends the University of Missouri-Columbia and could only take the first few weeks in November off to visit Greg.

The biggest challenge, she said, was seeing him in the hospital during her winter break, when he was conscious but heavily medicated.

“I was the one who was angry,” she said. But she said Greg got her through her frustration.

Now, Cristen sees her big brother in a new light.

“He’s a lot more passionate about the things he does,” she said. “He’s also much more open and outgoing than ever before.”

Greg’s friends were also an important motivator during Greg’s initial recovery, though many of them found it difficult to visit him because of their college schedules.

Alex Hoerl, a childhood friend and mechanical engineering senior at North Dakota State University, said he tried to visit Greg every-other-weekend while he was at HCMC.

“It was hard to make it down, but I called every week to see if he was making progress,” Alex said. “It’s incredible how fast he has healed.

“Now, it seems like he’s going out and doing more things than ever.”

For Greg, it was the little things his friends did while he was in the hospital that helped him most.

“Despite the fact that I was on the brink of death, they took the time to burn me CDs,” he said. He also got other small gifts and messages, including a pile of notes from one of his Spanish classes.

“I won’t say I appreciate them more, because I have always considered them as important to my progress in life,” he said. “I appreciate them on a new level.”

A man’s best friend

While old friends proved to be an important motivator during his treatment, Greg found a new friend who continues to keep him strong and happy through his long and ongoing recovery.

coming back to life

Greg rebounded from his accident quickly over the first 100 days. The following are milestones in his recovery.

-Day 1 Admission to HCMC
– Day 9 Breathed spontaneously on the ventilator
– Day 13 Tracheostomy inserted for longterm ventilation
– Day 16 Surgery to evacuate blood within the skull
– Day 18 First opened his eyes
– Day 22 Greg kisses his mother
– Day 25 Last of two tubes draining brain fluid is removed
– Day 30 Eight-hour neurosurgery to stabilize spine fractures
– Day 37 Transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester
– Day 38 Surgery to remove fluid compressing the spinal cord
– Day 42 Attends Christmas Eve Midnight Mass
– Day 47 Tracheostomy is removed
– Day 57 Leaves the hospital on pass for dinner
– Day 61 Takes steps and walks for the first time
– Day 64 Greg visits home and meets Klaus, his new dog
– Day 66 His feeding tube is removed
– Day 77 Greg is dismissed from St. Mary’s Hospital
– Day 93 Greg uses his wheelchair and walker for the last time

Greg and his doctors were not sure if he would ever walk independently again, even after he took his first steps since the accident on Jan. 12, 2006.

To ensure he would be able to get through a daily routine independently, Greg and his family began to look for a helper dog.

On Jan. 15, Greg officially adopted Klaus, a chocolate Labrador retriever puppy that would be there to greet him when he went home at the end of that month.

Greg made quick progress, moving from parallel bars to a walker.

“I used to look at people using walkers as handicapped,” he said. “I never thought ‘Hey, they’re walking.’ “

Eventually he moved to arm braces, which was one of the toughest transitions.

“I felt like I had four flat tires and the road was icy and I was out of gas,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Greg started walking with a cane, and by May 10, he was walking independently, with Klaus by his side.

Since then, the two have been inseparable.

“Some people say their babies are the most beautiful in the world,” Greg said. “I say that about my dog.”

Although Greg does not need Klaus to help him with everyday tasks, the 1-year-old dog helps him stick to his physical therapy routine. The two take a five-mile walk together every day, which can be a challenge for both of them since Klaus often suffers from joint pain.

“If I’m sore, I know he’s probably getting sore, too,” Greg said. “That’s how I know it’s time to go home.”

Moving forward

Apart from his daily walks with Klaus, Greg does a lot of other physical activities to help improve his physical condition.

He said he has recovered 70 percent of his physical abilities.

Twice a day, Greg does elevated push-ups to help build his arm strength. He also goes rock-climbing three times a week at the University’s St. Paul Gymnasium.

Greg said one of the most helpful physical activities has been swimming, which he started doing even before he could walk on his own.

The first time he got in a pool after his accident, Greg said he gave up after seven minutes in the water.

“It was a failure for myself,” he said. “But the next time, I forced myself to keep going. I just kept telling myself it didn’t hurt bad enough yet.”

Greg was a competitive swimmer in high school, so for him, being in the pool helped his mentality as much as anything.

Facebook Wall Posts

Schwab’s friends and family used Facebook to update each other on Greg’s condition and post messages of their support. Greg eventually began to respond on Jan. 5, 2006.

Cristen Schwab wrote
at 11:37 am on December 9th, 2005

I wanted to write because although words can’t really express the gratitude I feel towards you all. I know that since Greg can’t fully communicate right nowÖI want to make sure that you all know that your thoughts, prayers, gifts, and visits, have meant so much and made a huge and positive difference in Greg’s improvement. People that Greg calls his friends mean so much to him. He’s a person with few words and so when he considers someone his friend it is a really big deal. He’d do anything you guys asked of him and I know that he would want you to know how he is so happy to still be with us and it’s thanks to you!

We all want the old Greg back 🙂

So thanks so much from me…Greg…and my family. I know everyone is very kind of ‘shaken’ by this…but I’ve convinced myself that all we can do is look forward. Greg wouldn’t want us sad…he’s the one that says, “Cris, quit being sad, figure out what you can do to make your problems better.” So I’ve figured out this problem…just to keep cheering for Greg:)

Greg Schwab wrote
at 8:05 pm on January 5th, 2006

I’m still in the ‘pital, but I’m definately alive and kickin… tell Lawren and Ann, and EVERYbody else I say hi, that is… if you’re in the city

Swimming “was when I first realized I couldn’t have been doing that if I were paralyzed,” he said. “It gave me the competitive spirit again.”

Swimming also helped Greg accept his scars, which led to a new confidence in every aspect of his life.

“I’m more willing to put myself on the line,” he said. “That kind of confidence is something I always admired in others, a kind of fearlessness. Now, I feel like I’m there, too.”

Continued progress

Greg continues to hit new milestones. Two weeks ago, he ran for the first time since his accident.

“It wasn’t really running; it was more the motion of running,” he said. “But it was still a big deal.”

Greg said the biggest improvements are in his attitude and general outlook on life. He said he goes to all of his classes, for example, something he was not worried about doing before the accident.

“I have so much more to accomplish and more that I plan to achieve,” he said. “I take those goals so much more seriously now.”