by Cathy Cuff-Coffman

A young family, led by Mom, shows the true meaning of grit when its “squad leader” is hit with a devastating injury.

“Mama, take this badge from me,
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s getting dark too dark to see.
Feels like I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door.” –Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Bob Dylan

On January 2, 2023, 46-year-old Shawn Carlson, an executive chef for Metz Culinary, and his wife, 40-year-old Jamie Malta, had squired their three children: Stella, 8; Enzo, 7; and Vera, 3, to their grandparents’ house.

The couple had just finished putting Christmas decorations away. Jamie went to take a shower. No sooner was she ready to step into the shower than her phone rang.

It was Shawn. She could barely hear him. Admittedly, she was annoyed. She went downstairs, and Shawn was lying on the family room floor.

Jamie started yelling at him. “Get up! What are you doing?” Carlson replied faintly, “I can’t, I can’t move. I don’t think I will make it. I love you. Tell the kids I love them.”

“I started losing feeling in my legs,” remembers Shawn Carlson. “I couldn’t catch my breath. It was a feeling that I’d never had before. It was just the oddest feeling.”

From Floor to (Almost) Sitting

Malta recounts that she started screaming. “Get up!” But Shawn couldn’t. Malta struggled to get Carlson, a 6’1”, 220-pound man, to sit with his back against the couch.

“I called 911 and ran to our next-door neighbor, Amita, a physician,” says Malta. “Thankfully, she was home. Amita and her husband, also a physician, rushed in.”

Malta believes Amita and her husband started the chain reaction that saved Carlson’s life. “You’ve got to trust me,” Amita said to Malta and insisted the paramedics take Carlson to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) instead of the newer Wexford Pavilion Hospital.

Bring in the Experts

Once at AGH, the staff assessed Carlson and called in Dr. Satish Muluk, Director, Division of Vascular Surgery at AGH. “It was his day off,” says Malta, “and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on call.”

Dr. Muluk came right in, and confirmed the emergency room doctor’s diagnosis that Carlson had suffered an aortic dissection type B descending. This is a tear in the lower aorta only (descending aorta), which may extend into the abdomen.

Carlson says, looking back, he can see he had signs. Usually a jovial, happy-go-lucky guy, he was becoming more irritable. “I’ve had migraines in the past, and they were getting worse,” recounts Carlson.

“I used to hike with a friend on Sundays,” he says. “The last time we hiked was in December 2023, and I told him I just couldn’t finish the hike–I had no energy.”

Fear in Numbers

In the hospital, Malta followed Carlson’s progress on the MyChart app in real-time. At one point, Carlson’s blood pressure was so dangerously high Malta knew he was near death.

“I went to the desk and said, ‘My husband’s going to die, and I’m going to miss him. Let me back there!’” A nurse came flying out and took her back. “It looked like a movie scene,” she remembers. “About 30 people [surrounding Carlson] were in this emergency room.”

Complicating the aortic dissection, Carlson had a blood clot the size of his fist in his abdomen and a smaller one in his left leg.

The window for survival from an aortic dissection is four hours; two had already passed.

Worse-Case Scenarios

As Carlson was being prepped for surgery, Malta was advised that because of the size of the blood clots and the lack of blood flow to his spinal cord and lower extremities, he may suffer a spinal cord stroke–if he lives through the surgery.

Carlson’s surgery lasted nine hours, and he left the operating room with clamps keeping his abdomen open. The following day, 24 hours for a “wait-and-see” procedure to see if his left kidney and small intestine would regain function.

They did, but Carlson’s neurosurgeon informed Malta that Shawn did indeed suffer a spinal cord stroke in the T6-8 area, classified as a spinal cord injury, incomplete.

Making Rounds

“I was in the ICU for 17 days, in critical condition, but I don’t remember much,” says Carlson. He credits Malta with keeping abreast of everything. “They were letting her in with the doctors’ conversations!”

Carlson was referring to hospital rounds.

“It’s my nature to research and understand what’s happening,” says Malta.

“When they would round in the ICU, I would become part of the rounding because I read all the notes on MyChart and looked everything up.”

The staff at AGH were taken aback at how young the couple were. Most aortic dissections happen to people in their 60s and 70s.

Malta brought a family picture, hung it up, and said, “You see that? I have to bring him home. Please remember that.”

Where’s Daddy?

Malta says her children had difficulty understanding “why Daddy wasn’t home.” Their youngest, Vera, thought Malta was keeping “Daddy away” from the family.

“There were tough days for the kids,” she remembers. The family is a squad, “we have never been apart!” she says.

Carlson “got a bed” at UPMC Spinal Rehabilitation in Pittsburgh, PA, on the 7th floor, after a brief stint at West Penn Hospital Rehabilitation, where he had to go once the hospital deemed him well enough for release.

Getting this spot for Carlson was another time when Malta had to advocate for her husband. (“I knew West Penn wasn’t what he needed,” she says.)

There’s Daddy!!!

It wasn’t until Carlson made it to UPMC Spinal Rehabilitation that the children could see and spend time with their father.

“At this point, they hadn’t seen their dad for 30 days,” says Malta.

“UPMC was a world of difference,” remembers Carlson. He recounts that before arriving there he was a lot of pain medication. “I was tired, unmotivated, and didn’t want to do the rehab,” he admits. “So, they left me alone.”

“When I got to UPMC Mercy, the staff started weaning me off that stuff,” says Carlson. His kids could also spend as much time on the 7th floor, greatly enhancing Carlson’s mood.

“We became unofficial members of the 7th-floor team,” says Malta. The family spent nights and weekends there doing homework, watching shows, eating dinner, and reconnecting as a family.

“We could participate in Shawn’s PT sessions,” says Malta, “and the staff treated our kids like royalty.”

Work Begins

For Carlson, he was thrilled to have the squad back together, but he was more than thrilled with the care and rehab programs. “Yeah, there were times when I wouldn’t want to get out of bed,” admits Carlson, “but they still came down, got me out of bed, and got me moving.”

Carlson was at UPMC Mercy Rehab for most of February and until March 15th of 2023. When it was time to discharge home, Carlson and Malta were faced with how they were going to get aggressive home and outpatient therapy for Carlson.

“As discharge approached, I was panicked,” says Malta. “Going from full-time rehab to two days a week with home health was not going to work.”

More Research

Malta set up a home gym with donated equipment. She made Carlson a binder full of the exercise pages from Mercy.

“But I knew we needed more,” she says. “A neuro-based personal trainer had to be out there!” Thankfully, Malta’s family is replete with medical professionals; one connected her and Carlson with NeuroAxis.

NeuroAxis and its founder, Kelsey Harris, was the game changer,” admits Malta. While Harris’ main concern was getting Carlson started, Malta and Carlson were concerned with the cost.

“Insurance sessions are limited, so we were facing an out-of-pocket expense,” says Malta.

Pitt-based help

She had been feverishly applying for grants while Shawn was in the ICU, but none had materialized. “One day, I received an email from Trevor Williams, a major league baseball pitcher who once played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and is at the helm of Project34.”

Williams told Malta that when they were reviewing grant applications, they saw the 412-area code, he knew he had to help this Pittsburgh family.

“Thanks to Trevor and Project 34, we could cover the cost of NeuroAxis, which was the turning point for Shawn,” says Malta.

Another success story for Carlson came at the UPMC Lemieux Center. “I learned they had an AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill®, the same one Jeremy Renner used during his recovery from his accident on January 1, 2023,” says Malta.

The family are huge Marvel fans. “When Hawkeye [Renner’s character] was hurt the day before Shawn,” relates Malta, “I told our kids, and it helped them process what was happening with Daddy.”

The kids reminded Carlson that an Avenger is hurt, too, and they are working together to improve.

Malta and the kids even found Renner when he was filming in Pittsburgh. “We found a set, and the site manager was kind enough to take the kids and me on a tour!” exclaims Malta.

“When I told him our story, he told our kids, ‘Hawkeye was hurt like your Daddy, and he is back to work and doing great. And your Dad will be too.’”

Shazier Tie-In

Malta continued searching for resources for Carlson, and upon reading Mary Maloney’s feature on the Shazier Foundation site, she linked to Adventures in Training with a Purpose (ATP).

“I cried while reading their mission,” she admits, saying ATP’s holistic approach to recovery is exactly what Carlson needs, especially the mental health component.

Holistic Approach

“His mental health was suffering, and I had been struggling since January 2 to secure consistent mental health support for him and our kids,” says Malta.

She emailed executive director Caleb Kolb that night and had a response the following day. Kolb’s father, former Steeler, and legend Jon Kolb (ATP’s founder) had read Malta’s email and wanted to meet with the couple ASAP.

“He was confident they could help. We are so fortunate the facility is only 12 minutes from our home in Franklin Park. We met that day for 3 hours,” says Malta. “Jon’s parting words were, ‘Shawn, I have spent my life reviewing physical conditions. I spent years reviewing tapes for the Steelers, determining player potential. You are going to walk. I believe that. You need to believe that, too.’”

Malta says that for the first time in months, she felt true hope.

ATP calls it training, not therapy, as the idea is this is a lifestyle. He is learning new habits to carry with you for the rest of your life.

“There have been some incredibly dark days for Shawn,” notes Malta, “and I genuinely believe that if it were not for the sense of commitment Shawn feels towards Jon, he would not be with us today.”

“We owe everything to the team at ATP,” she opines. “When Shawn arrived there in May, he was in a wheelchair. Today, he is walking with hiking poles and is stronger than ever. Jon and his team push him, hold him accountable, and stick with him.”

A Golden Window

As Carlson progresses, Malta continues to research and advocate for him. To help defray costs, she continues to apply for grants. Carlson was recently awarded a Ryan Shazier Golden Window stipend.

While taking a Pilates class, Malta found another resource at EquilibriumPgh Movement Studio that helped Shawn with stretching and low-impact strength training. Allie Green, the owner, also provides another sense of peace and calm.

Fast-Tracking Progress

Stepping back, it’s only been a year and three months since Shawn Carlson thought he was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Not only did he suffer a near-fatal aortic dissection, he made a remarkable recovery from a spinal stroke that has left many in wheelchairs.

But for Carlson, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. He went back to work too soon and later learned he could have had more time off to recover. He has feelings, like many spinal cord injury warriors, that his career as a chef has been either lost or altered by his disability.

And he misses being “The Squad Leader” for his very active little squad.

For Malta, she became an instant caregiver and mom-about-town, getting three kids to and from appointments and activities. She, too, has done a yeoman’s amount of work in a very short amount of time.

In a recent follow-up communication, we talked about self-care. She laughed. “You’re gonna love this! Next Friday the kids and I are playing hooky from school and work–and going to see ‘Disney on Ice!’”




Shawn Carlson & Jamie Malta's Shalieve Words of Wisdom

Don’t hold back advice and perspective from others. “The closeness of my extended family has doubled what it was. Shawn’s health is the best it’s ever been. Our kids have learned how important it is to take care of yourself – physically and mentally.”

“We can articulate feelings and emotions the best we ever have. Our home has a lot of open dialogue and honesty; our kids are not afraid to speak their minds and ask questions. Stella wants to be a physical therapist when she grows up to help others like people have helped her Daddy. They are hearing a 9-year-old say that, which is pretty incredible.”

Advocate! “We cannot stress this enough. Ask questions, research, challenge, learn – if it doesn’t seem right, odds are it isn’t. Listen to your gut; it's always right.”

Malta: “I would find myself in a room with some of the best in their fields, and never once did I hesitate to ask questions. I would remind everyone, especially in those early days, that it was my job to bring him home, and I took it very seriously.”

Research. “Learn everything you can. I can’t tell you how many resources I have found by just looking.”

Be firm–in any aspect of life. “We know what our family needs, and you are with us or stand aside. Those who are your people get this and are on board—those who aren’t take it personally. Your energy is precious; only apply it to people and tasks that help your loved ones.