Into the wild blue yonder

Until relatively recently in her young but eventful life, Heather Schultz never really thought about learning to fly.

For much of the last five years, in fact, the 26-year-old has been largely preoccupied with some much more basic lessons, like re-learning how to walk, how to feed herself, how to dress herself and a multitude of other tasks that most folks take for granted.

Schultz, a Cinnaminson, N.J., native, was 21 when she dove into a friend’s backyard pool, hit the water incorrectly, broke her neck and suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury. Now, she’s considered a quadriplegic.

But impaired use of her arms, legs, hands and feet hasn’t stopped Schultz from embarking on a new, previously unimaginable life as a recreational pilot. Last year, she learned to fly, thanks to a non-profit program founded in 2006 by a North Carolina-based aviation writer and enthusiast, Charles H. Stites.

“I didn’t have anything else to do, for one,” Schultz said recently when asked to explain her interest in the Able Flight program.

“I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea, but I wanted to prove that if I put my mind to something, I could do it. I may be slow on the ground, but my brain still works.”

Even without the flying aspect, Schultz’s story is one of perseverance over tragic misfortune and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

As a 21-year-old, she attended a party at a friend’s house. At one point during the night, she jumped into the pool. But instead of slicing through the water like a dolphin, she fell awkwardly and struck the surface with the side of her head, resulting in a forceful impact.

“The way I hit the water, I didn’t have my hands out,” Schultz said. “I instantly fell to the bottom of the pool. I was paralyzed.”

She would later learn that she had broken three cervical vertebrae, but medical attention wasn’t immediately forthcoming.

Her friends pulled her out of the pool and took her into the house, where they laid her down. Nobody called an ambulance until the next morning. Schultz remembers little of the episode.

“They moved me around and shouldn’t have,” she said.

Once she made it to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, the medical staff immediately placed her in an external neck-stabilizing device known as a halo. They used several screws to attach the metal ring to her skull.

The former Cinnaminson High soccer, softball and basketball standout underwent emergency surgery that night.

The disaster pre-empted her college plans. She was supposed to start classes in the nuclear medicine technology program at Gloucester County College two weeks later.

“They didn’t give me an answer when I first asked if I’d be able to walk again,” Schultz recalled.

During the surgery, doctors inserted a device known as a “cage” into her neck to stabilize the damaged vertebrae.

Weeks later, after coming out of intensive care at Cooper, she overheard her doctor tell her father that her prognosis for even a partial recovery was not promising.

But nobody broached the subject with her.

Just over three weeks later, Schultz was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Center City, where she spent the next three months in intensive inpatient therapy.

“Initially at Magee, it was tough. I would just get nauseous. I couldn’t really get to therapy,” she said.

“I was on a ventilator for a while. I couldn’t breathe on my own.”

Eventually, the routine became a 7:30 or 8 a.m. wake-up call, breakfast, occupational therapy, physical therapy, lunch, more therapy, dinner and back to bed. This happened day after day.

“It’s like there’s a whole process of mourning,” Schultz said. “First you go through a denial phase, then bargaining, then you’re angry and then acceptance.

“The whole time I was saying, ‘I’m going to walk,’ and I had my whole family there saying things. But I don’t like people saying I’m able to (walk now) because I wanted it enough. That’s disregarding the whole science of it.”

Occupational therapist Gina Cooke and Schultz formed a special bond at Magee.

“She was very driven and very motivated,” Cooke said. “She tried to have a positive outlook on her situation. She had her good days and her bad days. But as her recovery moved along, she had more good days.”

After her release from the hospital and return home, Schultz continued with extensive outpatient therapy. For seven months, she returned to Magee for daily sessions. After that, the regimen was gradually scaled back to four days a week, then three.

Typically, with spinal cord injuries like Schultz’s, patients may continue to regain functionality for up to two years.

“They tell you what you have after two years is what you’re going to have,” she said. “So it’s not like I’m going to get up one day and do cartwheels, although I might feel like (I could do) it sometimes.”

Now, the right side of Schultz’s body has better mobility, but less feeling than her left side, which is more sensitive to temperature and pain. She has a lot more dexterity in her right hand than her left. She can walk with a cane, but it’s very demanding, so she often uses a wheelchair or a scooter at the supermarket or shopping mall.

It’s a perpetual struggle to maintain functionality.

“With Heather, she has to continue going to therapy or continue to work out to maintain her level,” Cooke added. “It’s like, use it or lose it. It’s a lifetime commitment.”

That’s how flying airplanes entered the picture.

The staff at Magee generally encourages patients to get involved in extracurricular activities. The hospital has its own wheelchair sports coordinator. About three years after her injury, Schultz learned about the wheelchair rugby program and attended a practice.

The other players refused to let her sit idly on the sidelines. Instead, they recruited her.

“Most of the people have spinal cord injuries, and some are amputees,” Schultz said.

Being able to socialize with others who are confronted by similar circumstances added a new facet to her emotional recovery.

“I had friends coming to see me (at home), but they really didn’t understand what I’m going through,” Schultz said. “It was tough to stay connected. They feel sorry and really don’t know what to say.

“With rugby, you see people in the same situation and you get to compare notes. You get to know people really quickly, and they get it,” she added.

Next for Schultz came road racing. She entered the Broad Street Run in May 2010. As one of two female wheelchair entrants, Schultz was almost guaranteed a medal and a monetary prize for placing in her division, as long as she managed to finish the grueling 10-mile race.

Unfortunately, the old racing-style chair that she borrowed didn’t readily cooperate. Her legs were in an awkward position, and one of the tires kept losing air.

The wheelchair athletes started minutes ahead of the rest of the field, but it wasn’t very long before the race-leading Kenyan men started passing her, followed by hundreds of other runners.

“It was a very humbling experience,” she said.

It also became a very inspiring experience as spectators and fellow competitors formed a chain of encouragement and support. At one point, someone helped her stop at a gas station on Broad Street to refill her tire with air.

“Everybody thinks running is an individual sport, but I had this whole team of people helping me, and they wouldn’t finish until I finished,” Schultz said.

Around the same time, she also learned about Able Flight, a non-profit organization that arranges and funds flight training for people with spinal cord injuries, military-related injuries or certain congenital impairments.

According to Stites, the founder, 19 people have obtained pilot licenses through the program, and many others have participated in flight training.

As a longtime aviation writer and photographer, Stites learned of a similar program in Great Britain, but he was unable to find one in the United States. So he started one with the help of many longtime contacts in the aviation industry.

Flying an airplane is liberating physically and emotionally to Able Flight trainees, but the learning process is demanding.

“It is a challenge that really gets to the emotional side of life and intellectual side of life,” Stites said. “There is a physical challenge.

“I’ve been flying for thirty years, and I use my feet and hands like all pilots, and it would be a real challenge (for me) to fly only with my hands.”

The program is intensive and takes five to six weeks to complete. Trainees learn in the classroom and in the air and must be able to perform the same maneuvers that a non-impaired pilot can do.

They use a small sport plane retrofitted with special hand controls that replace foot pedals. There are only about 20 in the United States. A former Able Flight trainee and current board member, Sean O’Donnell, owns one of the planes and has opened his own flight school at New Castle County Airport in Delaware.

Schultz considers O’Donnell her aviation mentor. In June 2010, she traveled to Purdue University in Indiana for her training. Purdue operates one of the nation’s leading aviation programs.

While on one of her first solo flights, Schultz took a particularly hard landing that damaged the plane.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It comes more easily to some than others,” she said. “I did want to leave at that point, but I knew if I left I’d regret it later.”

She was back in the air two days later and went on to earn her license.

“Becoming a pilot was almost secondary to what I took away from the program,” Schultz said.

“It gives you the confidence to embark on future endeavors that otherwise you may not want to (do) or you feel you wouldn’t be able to handle it. I will go forward with (flying), but I will get some more lessons and go with other people who are pilots, because there is still much more to learn.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

Flight information . . .

Visit www.ableflight.org for information about Able Flight.

Visit www.mageerehab.org for information about Magee Rehabilitation.