23-year-old Zach Schmude never lost a beat after being crushed by a piece of work equipment. His positive attitude carries him to every accomplishment.
Pittsburgh-area Zach Schmude was just 23 years old when he decided he would make a career change.
“I was working for a beer distributor as a CDL delivery driver,” says Zach, “but I was also in the warehouse working night shift, building the beer pallets.”
His uncle, Rob Metz, had started a commercial plumbing business, Metz Plumbing in 2021, and needed a CDL driver. In early 2022, Schmude accepted an offer from his uncle to drive his trucks, and to apprentice as a plumber–thus gaining a much-needed and valuable career skill.
“And, I got to work with my twin brother, Nate!” exclaims Schmude, noting that joining a trustworthy family business was very satisfying. He was working longer and harder but with purpose.
Active Young Man
Since the job was driving and commercial plumbing, the varied and “outside” nature of the business fit Schmude’s active lifestyle.
With Metz Plumbing. Schmude often worked weekends, prepping sites for the jobs ahead. “But I’m pretty athletic and love to hang out with friends,” he adds. “So, I’d make the time to be with them.”
Schmude says they bowled a lot, but his favorite activity was bike riding the trails around Pittsburgh, like the Gap and Montour trails. “I’d go bike riding every weekend,” he reminisces, “Where I’d bike 25 to 30 miles a ride,” Schmude says he loved being out in the fresh air and the challenge the trails offered. He’d try to combine those rides with some overnight camping.
“That was my big getaway. Just nice and peaceful and out in the country,” he says. “And looking back, I took life for granted.”
Schmude adds that even at 23, he realizes now that he was constantly working and the one- or two-day getaways were all he afforded for himself. “I didn’t really take time for myself, never took a vacation. I never even took personal days. I was just constantly working.”
“Ditches are Witches”
On Thursday, November 3, 2022, it was another workday. Metz Plumbing had procured a new piece of equipment to make creating safe ditch space for the technicians easier. “We specialized in sewer pipe lining, so we were usually digging up house traps outside.”
The new equipment would enable the techs to both fix and then epoxy coat the old sewer lines, making them as strong or stronger as Schedule 40 PVC pipe.
“So instead of having different sections of pipe, you have one straight, continuous, smooth piece of sewer line,” says Schmude. You can hear his enthusiasm for his new job and all he was learning.
The affected pipe sat off the main road on a tree-covered hillside.
Four men were at the site, and Schmude cleared the leaves and brush to enable the new equipment to access the pipe’s location. And it was the first job where Metz would be using the new ditch equipment, so Schmude wanted to make sure the site was ready for the trainers, who were coming from the equipment company, had a clear site.
Nate Schmude was operating a digger, but the site slope also had live gas lines, so the process became very slow and tedious.
An Awkward Recovery
Nate and Zach got to a point where they couldn’t do much more digging, and the other workers went back to the shop to retrieve some additional tools. The trainers hadn’t arrived yet.
The machine was about two feet deep but in an awkward position.
“I’m the type of person that hates sitting around,” says Schmude, “So as Nate was repositioning the machine, I grabbed a shovel and hopped into the ditch.”
At some point, the new machine shifted, and Zach Schmude saw it coming toward him. “I’m little–5’5” and 125 lbs.”
He was bent over, in about two feet of space. The machine hit Schmude, impacted Schmude’s lower spine, completely shattered his T10 vertebrae, dislocated T11, and completely severed his spinal cord at the thoracic level.
The impact folded Schmude entirely in half; his upper body folded on his legs.
The Longest Plank
With Nate’s help, Zach was able to free himself enough so to relieve pressure on his lungs, although he was still lying in the 2’x3’ ditch, with the machine still precariously above him.
“I was holding myself up on my elbows, and this is within two minutes of, the accident,” says Schmude.
“I had taken my right hand, grabbed above my knee near my thigh and I had shaken it. I tried to move my legs and I couldn’t move them at all,” he says. It was then he realizes he was paralyzed from the waist down.
“And believe it or not, I told Nate, and I had accepted it at that point.”
First Responders’ Ingenuity
After Nate Schmude called his uncle Rob about the accident, Rob located a fellow plumber with a larger excavation machine. That man, Cory, got to the site, and. Sadly, could do nothing.
“Five minutes later, police officers, paramedics, firefighters, all first responders imaginable arrived on the scene,” says Schmude. He says he had little pain, most likely due to the shock, and was focused on breathing.
The paramedics and firefighters arrived within five minutes, and they came up with a plan where they used a ramp and a shovel to extract Schmude safely.
“By the way I was positioned, they couldn’t stabilize my neck with a C-collar, so they improvised with a towel,” Schmude explains.
Schmude was folded in the ditch for 50 minutes, and lacerations on his back and head spewed blood. A paramedic was laying in the cab of the excavating machine, ready to receive Schmude on extraction, which included The Jaws of Life.
Positive, even in Distress
Schmude says, looking back, that he remained calm the entire process, even cracking jokes with the first responders.
He was Life Flighted to Allegheny General Hospital, where many doctors and nurses were waiting.
“I said, ‘You know, I’ve never been so famous. I’ve never seen so many people waiting for me before!’”
He had an MRI to assess the damage and moved to his room in Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
“It was when I moved to ICU when the pain kicked in,” says Schmude.
“I had two fractured ribs on the left side of my body, an NG tube to drain fluid.”
The next day, Schmude had a seven-hour surgery for spinal fusion from T1-L2, and a laminectomy for T11, all with the requisite rods and screws.
The next day, when moving from his ICU bed to an x-ray is when Schmude hit his breaking point with pain. “I have a high tolerance for pain, but those first few days after surgery were unbearable,” he recounts.
“I just wanted to sleep in and take my pain meds,” he says.
Brave New World
But, on Tuesday, November 2, 2022, therapists came to fit Schmude for a back brace, and as they got him to sit up, he realized that he could manage the pain and his attitude had shifted to and “I CAN” mantra.
Throughout the rest of the week, he practiced sitting balance (as a thoracic injury Schmude’s core muscles are affected). “At first, my goal was to sit in the chair for an hour with my brace on!”
With some pain meds, Schmude lasted the whole hour. It was only four days since his injury, accident, “but it was like a light switch went off,” says Schmude.
“After that, I could stay awake just about the whole day. I’d taken maybe one nap that day, but I’d gotten my appetite type back. I was able to stay awake. I was conversing with people and watching TV and was feeling myself again.”
“And the next day, Friday,” says Schmude, “I was transferred to UPMC Mercy Hospital for Rehabilitation.”
Schmude vividly remembers going outside to get in the ambulance for the ride to UPMC and breathing and feeling the fresh air. “I remember thinking, ‘I love to be outside. I love to do anything outside. I’ll do anything I need to do to get outside.’”
And so Schmude entered SCI rehab with the gusto and determination he had when he switched careers to the plumbing trade. Work hard, pay attention, and do whatever it takes–and more. Schmude spent nine weeks at UPMC rehab. At first, he was in a motorized wheelchair, but because of his small stature and decent upper body mobility, used a slide board for some transfers and allowed Schmude to work through others on his own.
Attitude is Everything
“I wanted to start learning as much as I can as fast as I can because this was going to be my new way of living,” surmises Schmude. “The faster I learn, the more I could expand on it in that hospital.”
Schmude, true to form and personality, “ate up” everything he could do and learn at UPMC. A week into his stay, he was able to use Tylenol as his painkiller and was able to wean off of muscle relaxers because, fortunately, his spasms only come at night while lying in bed.
And a week after he arrived at UPMC, he was agile and strong enough to “graduate” to a manual wheelchair. “They kept the power wheelchair around in case I wanted to use it,” he muses, “and as nice as it was, I like to move around too much, so I never used it again!” Schmude lets out a triumphant laugh!
Schmude relates that transfers were a work in progress, because he was trying to rebuild his core muscles.
“During my therapy sessions, I focused on weight lifting, really focused on transfers, and they were stretching me every single day to build the flexibility that I can see now that I need.”
Eventually, Schmude was sitting on the mat table with no support, using the manual wheelchair to “pop over bumps and picking things off the floor, using my core muscles to get back to a sitting position,” he says. This is remarkable progress.
It’s only been five months since Schmude’s accident, and this 23-year-old man has one of the most positive and introspective views and outlooks on his short- and long-term recovery.
“Even to this day, I wake up and go through my whole morning routine and my bowel program and everything else,” he explains. “I get dressed, stretch myself, and then stretch my legs throughout the day,” he says.
Schmude discharged from UPMC on December 27th to an assisted living facility because his house wasn’t ready. He’s still there, but he has it set up like a little apartment and can leave whenever he wants. He still gets outpatient PT, and “gets outside as much as I can.”
He’s graduated again, to KAFO braces, and he’s used them for about a week. “They are great!” he says, “And I can see where they will help me further.”
While at UPMC Schmude became familiar with The Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation and started following the site and the activities. His friend, who helped him with a manual wheelchair, alerted him to the rock-climbing event.
That’s how, at five months post-injury, he attended The Fund’s first adaptive rock-climbing event and impressed the organizers.
“My recovery has been very kind to me,” Schmude admits. “Knock on wood, after my pain went away, I was able to focus on exactly what I needed to do to recover, to get better, and to adapt.”
Zach Schmude’s Shalieve Wisdom
Keep a positive attitude. “I was born with a great attitude and a supportive family, and like I said, my recovery has been kind to me. But if you feel your attitude could be better, find a professional to talk with. So many people say, ‘Attitude is everything.’”
Ask as many questions as you can. “The more knowledge you have, the better. Don’t worry that you might be a pain- trust me, the therapists love a patient that is engaged and wants to learn about their recovery.”
Connect with as many people as you can, especially in similar situations as you. “Going to the climbing event (with The Fund) was awesome from both a physical standpoint and for me to connect with others in a similar situation.
And it makes a world of difference because those are the people that have the best advice to be able to get through any circumstance that you might not come across.”
And a bonus piece of advice: try to find gainful employment if you can. “A friend I met through this injury owns Laurel Medical, and he is going to open a warehouse in Pittsburgh.
He fitted me for a manual wheelchair, and we became friends. He loves my attitude and has already told me that when the Pittsburgh site opens, he has employment for me.”