Long road to recovery for Upstate firefighter in plane crash
AUGUSTA, Ga. — No one should have survived.
Patrick Schultz’ wife, Jessica, recently stood in a rehabilitation room explaining the horrors surrounding a fiery plane crash that killed three family members in Bay County, Fla., May 25.
“If you saw pictures you would understand why I say that. Nobody should have walked out of that,” his wife said.
What went wrong, how it happened and why he was the only one to walk away from the wreckage are no longer questions that cloud their minds.
For Schultz, it’s a matter of moving forward.
The Upstate firefighter was severely injured when a small Piper PA-28 airplane he was piloting crashed near Panama City, Fla. Among the passengers: his mother, Kathleen Schultz, aunt Nancy Moore and 13-year-old nephew Nicholas Hoang, who were all pronounced dead at the scene.
Patrick Schultz was rushed to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctor’s Hospital in Augusta, Ga. where he spent the next nine weeks being sedated, undergoing surgeries, grappling with the events that unfurled and fighting through recovery and rehabilitation.
Friday marked a breakthrough in his road to recovery when he was released from the burn center and returned to South Carolina, stopping first at his fire station to see — and thank — his fellow firefighters for their continued support.
The Florida native has been a firefighter with the Pelham-Batesville Fire Department in Greer for a year. He has also spent the past decade as a volunteer firefighter for Cowpens Fire Department. Patrick Schultz, Jessica Schultz and their two daughters, 13-year-old Randi and 4-year-old Kara, have lived in Cowpens for the past 11 years.
The family had been vacationing in Florida when the plane went down that Sunday morning in May. It was a vacation they had taken numerous times before, and it was a plane ride that was not uncommon, either. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash.
“Success,” “Perseverance” and “Determination” could be seen recently on Patrick Schultz’s face as clearly as those words were displayed on posters that line the rehabilitation floor of the burn center.
Since being admitted May 25, he went through 14 surgeries and skin grafts to repair his internal injuries and replace skin tissue that had burned.
There were times when he would have to sit in a bed without movement for 10 straight days, Patrick Schultz recalled.
He sustained third-degree burns to 40 percent of his body.
The Joseph M. Still Burn Center is the largest burn center in the U.S. and the third largest in the world, said Dr. Fred Mullins, the center’s president and medical director. About 3,000 inpatients and 40,000 outpatients come to the center for a broad range of burn injuries. Each are treated and put through recovery programs until they are able to live independently.
By July 16, Patrick Schultz was moved from the intensive care unit to the rehabilitation floor.
“I’m ready to get out of here,” he said while walking confidently down hallways Monday afternoon.
Between an overflow of letters and fundraisers held in his honor, firefighters from both of his fire departments have made multiple trips to Augusta to see him through his recovery. It’s been uplifting, he said, and it has given him the determination needed.
“That’s really blessed me and gave me even more incentive to keep digging,” he said of the firefighter bond he calls a brotherhood.
The sixth floor
Patrick was moved to floor six after weeks of surgeries and treatments in the intensive care unit.
He immediately began showing signs of improvement, said Bethany Falde, his occupational therapist.
“He’s done exceptionally well,” she said while Patrick Schultz peddled on an exercise bike in a nearby room.
In her line of work, it’s easy to spot determined and motivated patients out of ones who are discouraged with virtually no drive to improve, she said.
“Anything I’ve done I’ve given 100 percent. … And this is no different.”
“Anything I’ve done I’ve given 100 percent. … And this is no different,” Patrick Schultz said.
His daily rehab consisted of about five hours of physical and occupational therapy, from biking to using straps to lift and stretch his legs.
Additional “homework” involved resistance grips and other devices for repetitive exercises to regain maneuverability on his off time.
Patrick Schultz’s right arm and right leg were the most badly burned parts of his body and required the most therapeutic attention.
In the large room of exercise equipment and colorful ropes, cones and items used for improving motor skills, he worked on personal progress. He was immersed with other patients, each recovering from a variety of injuries. His expressions exuded determination through most of his routines and repetitions on various muscle-building and stretching machines.
The exercises work out the stiffness and rigid textures left by burn scars, Falde said.
“His grip is really limited, but he’s getting a lot of motion back,” she said.
Falde said when not in rehab, Patrick and other patients are given non-slip socks and loose, nylon belts for therapists walking with patients to hold onto to prevent them from falling.
Most patients who first enter the rehab floor are considered to be at risk of falling, she said.
Patrick Schultz donned a green wristband he was given Monday, signifying that he was no longer a fall risk after about five days into rehab. Parts of his body were still wrapped in protective coverings and silicone gel pads that Falde said help compress and mold grafted skin back to normal conditions.
At times, past patients revisit the rehab floor and help build confidence in current patients, she said, and added that learning and talking through the emotional aspects of an injury are part of the therapy.
“Sometimes adversity can bring about good things,” she said.
The love and support from those in the community have been instrumental to Patrick Schultz’s recovery.
He received hundreds of “get well” letters, many from those whom he had never met but who had heard of his trying experience.
The handfuls of cards that filled his hospital room’s mailbox each day have been another telling image explaining how he is alive today, he and Jessica Schultz said.
“This one is from Canada. Here’s one from California,” said daughter Randi Schultz, looking through their growing collection of cards. “We’re going to need a bigger box if they keep coming.”
Randi Schultz said she is proud of her father, and called him a “go-getter” numerous times while he was in rehab.
Patrick Schultz emphasized the gratitude — and at times, burden — he has felt having so many reach out to him with prayers and financial and emotional support.
As a firefighter, Patrick Schultz is typically the one helping others. Receiving the support is foreign to him.
“I enjoy helping people and that’s where my heart is and that’s what the fire service is all about,” he said. “It’s getting down and helping people at all costs.”
News of the plane crash spread quickly, first within the fire service community, and soon after within the region and in media outlets in Florida and South Carolina.
The Belvedere Fire Department in North Augusta is one example of the extension of support that has come to light since the crash. Belvedere Fire Chief Chad Hyler said he offered up his fire station as a place for firefighters visiting Patrick Schultz to stay after they heard the news.
“Being this close to the burn center, we wanted to be able to reach out and help however we can,” Hyler said. “Our doors are open.”
Now Patrick Schultz’s name is well-known in Spartanburg County communities, including where he serves as a firefighter in Cowpens and Greer.
Fundraisers of all kinds — from cold water challenges, to barbecue lunches, to T-shirt sales — have been held by local fire departments and organizations and are ongoing.
“He’s a family man, and we know he’s going to recover,” said Tony Blanton, Patrick Schultz’s fire chief at Cowpens Fire Department. “I’ve never seen him when he didn’t give anything other than 100 percent.”
The outpouring of support has been a tremendous help to his healing process, Patrick Schultz said.
“God bless them for being obedient to the call of helping out a fellow brother,” he said. “It’s overwhelming to see so many people, people I don’t even know, giving financially and helping out in ways I couldn’t fathom.”
Firefighters at the Pelham-Batesville department have donated their sick leave to Patrick Schultz to help cover for his time in recovery, said Capt. Brandon McNeil, who called Patrick Schultz “one of a kind.”
A fundraiser through First Citizens Bank is still set up to help raise money to cover medical costs for the family. Donations can be made to the “Firefighter Patrick Schultz Relief Fund.”
‘God pulled him out’
Patrick Schultz remembers everything about the crash, but he has no interest in dwelling on the past.
He never lost consciousness throughout the traumatic event, he said. His family died instantly, while he awaited emergency responders.
Patrick’s brother, Tom, is also in the fire service as a firefighter and paramedic for Jackson County Fire and Rescue. The crash site was in his brother’s service area, and although Tom Schultz was off-duty at the time, he was still first to respond and was the first one to administer aid to his brother.
“He told you it was OK. He gave you medicine and he kissed your head and you were off,” Jessica Schultz said to her husband.
The memories Patrick Schultz took away from that fateful Sunday morning are not ones he wishes to recount, and he largely credits his pastor’s guidance for being able to move beyond the negatives.
Mountain View Baptist Church pastor Steven Griffith had visited Patrick Schultz at least once a week while he was recovering in the burn center. Griffith told him that even if he could understand why it happened, it still would not change the fact that it has already happened.
“The Lord works in ways that are foreign to us, but all I know is that he’s done a miracle in my life.”
“The Lord works in ways that are foreign to us, but all I know is that he’s done a miracle in my life,” Patrick Schultz said. “He saved me on Sept. 25, 2012, spiritually, but you know, he saved me out of that airplane for reasons I can’t explain.”
After being admitted into the burn unit, he was in a coma for nearly a week. Even then, Jessica Schultz said she began reading his “get well” letters at his bedside during visiting hours.
Jessica Schultz went immediately from the crash site to Augusta where the two had been until he was released Friday.
She recalled the moments before traveling to Augusta, getting the initial phone call from a relative stating that his plane had gone down.
“My daughters were with me when I get a phone call and I’m thinking, ‘What? Are you being serious?'” she said while standing near colorful cards and letters strewn about Patrick Schultz’s hospital bed. “Then they hear me just trying to ask everybody if he’s dead or alive. … I didn’t handle it the best.”
She had opted out of the plane ride and stayed back to prepare things for a boat ride they were planning for the afternoon.
She hasn’t left his side since.
“I miss my bed, my house, but my priority is him. He’s first,” she said, holding her husband’s hand.
The two kissed outside room 637, Patrick Schultz’s rehab room, after a morning of exercises Tuesday. His T-shirt was sweaty as he sat down into a chair, his family around him.
“I was just told today that I may actually be out of here by Friday,” he announced and cracked a smile.
Impacts of a burn injury
“When people think of burns, most people think that just the skin is affected,” Mullins said.
The skin is affected, but when someone is burned to 50 percent of their body, it’s systemic, he said.
The immune system, lungs, kidneys and liver can be severely damaged. Merely surviving a severe burn injury is no small feat, Mullins said.
“When the immune system shuts down, it leads to infection, and that’s the number one cause of death with patients.”
Weakness sets in almost immediately with burn injuries.
Removing dead tissue in an operating room is the burn center’s initial priority with incoming burn patients to prevent spreading infection.
Apart from crippling physical effects, burn injuries are associated with some of the greatest psychological impacts.
Mullins explained that about 55 percent of those suffering from burns go into depression and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scarring and deformities are common with such injuries, which is why part of the burn center’s primary goals are to direct their efforts toward reconfiguration, second to their primary goal of saving lives.
“Injuries can be to the body and mind, too,” he said.
The center, for that reason, employs a full-time psychiatrist to improve patients’ mental states.
Patrick Schultz praised the center’s medical personnel for their efforts to save him.
“I wouldn’t be this far along if it wasn’t for the staff that’s on site here,” he said. “They’ve gotten me well on my way to recovery.”
“It just takes time,” Mullins added. “You’d be amazed at what the end product is.”
Patrick Schultz wasn’t the only one ready to move on from the hospital stay.
“This one says, ‘Daddy’s coming home,'” 4-year-old Kara said, holding up one of the cards that contained a lengthy hand-written note Tuesday.
It is clear what’s on her daughter’s mind, Jessica Schultz said, who added that their 4-year-old only knows that “daddy is sick.”
Apart from reuniting with his firefighters, a home-cooked country meal, perhaps chicken casserole with green beans and mashed potatoes, was on Patrick Schultz’s mind while in Augusta. Weeks of hospital tray meals or Subway sandwiches were tiring.
Jessica Schultz said he and the children are ready to return to a normal life.
At the same time, there’s no telling the power of his testimony, Jessica Schultz said.
“There’s not going to be one person who’s not going to want to hear his story and listen to him. Maybe that’s why. … Maybe he can change somebody’s life,” Jessica Schultz said.
The Schultz’s point to God when lost in thought about how and why he was saved from the wreckage and came out alive.
“That was our thing. We kept wanting to know why, why. But we can’t think of it like that,” Jessica Schultz said. “God saved him for a reason.”
“I’ll do my best to honor him and do what I can to serve him the rest of my days,” Patrick Schultz added.
Jessica Schultz held up her iPhone in Patrick’s rehab room Tuesday morning.
A photo of Patrick’s face after he was admitted to the burn unit shows his entire head wrapped in white bandages and gauze. A half-dozen medical tubes were seen extended from his face.
Gradual photos show the bruising and scarring, though his face’s condition about eight weeks after the crash show almost no sign of an accident, apart from several patches of hair loss on the back of his scalp.
His road to recovery will continue through out-patient treatments and in-home therapy in Cowpens now that he has returned from Augusta.
He expects to go back to the fire department soon and be assigned to administrative “light duty” as his body is still healing. Just being in the fire station, among his peers, has given reason behind his perseverance.
“The circumstances have changed, but I’m doing the best I can to get where I need to go,” he said. “I’m ready to get back to work.”