ELLSWORTH, Wis. — When someone told her to move out of the way during a scene change for “The Wizard of Oz,” Tasha Schuh took one step back.
Schuh, a junior in high school at the time, fell 16 feet through a trap door in the stage of the Sheldon Theater in Red Wing, Minn. She landed on her head on the concrete floor, breaking her neck, crushing her spinal cord and fracturing her skull.
Doctors told her she would never walk — or sing — again. That was 16 years, five months and nine days ago.
But Schuh, who is paralyzed from the chest down, says she wouldn’t change a thing.
“Ironically, I have accomplished more sitting in my wheelchair than I ever thought I would do walking,” Schuh, 33, said during a recent interview in her home office in Ellsworth, Wis.
“Life is so wonderful if you just hold on and press through the difficult times. The best is yet to come.”
Schuh, who was crowned Miss Wheelchair USA in 2012, has taken that message on the road.
She’ll perform “Over the Rainbow” in two concerts with the Croix Chordsmen Saturday at Stillwater Junior High School.
An inspirational speaker, she shares her message with thousands of people each year at churches, schools and businesses around the country. She gave 74 speeches last year — to audiences ranging from a dozen people to more than 2,000.
She starts each speech by introducing her electric wheelchair — a Permobil C-300 from Sweden, which features rear-wheel drive.
“I call this the Lamborghini, and just like a Lamborghini, it can go from zero to 60 in three seconds,” Schuh said. “It’s actually zero to 6, but I want them to know that I’m normal, just like them, and, yes, I use a wheelchair, but this is the Lamborghini of wheelchairs. It’s got the headlights, hazard lights, blinkers, horn. I mean it can do anything and everything, but this hasn’t always been my life.”
Never Give Up
Schuh, the youngest of three children, was a happy-go-lucky teenager who loved to sing, play piano and compete in volleyball and basketball. Her parents, Duane Schuh and Kathy Schuh, now divorced, owned D&K’s IGA grocery store in Ellsworth. They taught her an important lesson: Never give up.
“If I went out for a sport and halfway through the season I wanted to quit, they said: ‘No, you don’t. You don’t have to go out next year, but you have to finish the season,’ ” Schuh said. “They were very hard workers and instilled that work ethic in us: ‘You don’t quit. You persevere, even if difficulties come.’ ”
Duane Schuh, a tenor in the Croix Chordsmen and other groups, was the “wedding and funeral singer” in Ellsworth, Tasha Schuh said. “Every group that had singers, he was in it. He was in a country group. He was in a choir. I always hoped that when I grew up I would inherit just a little bit of talent, because he was a very good singer.”
Schuh, a soprano, was in the choir and band at Ellsworth High School. She landed the role of Sandy in “Grease” during her sophomore year and was cast as a chorus member in “The Wizard of Oz” the next year. The play was to be rehearsed and performed at the nearby Sheldon Theater.
A few days before her accident in November 1997, a friend asked about the worst thing that could ever happen to her.
“I had just seen a celebrity fundraiser featuring Christopher Reeve, and I remember thinking that if that was ever my life — if I was ever paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair, couldn’t walk — I couldn’t do it,” Schuh said. “Three days later, doctors told me I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.”
After they got the call saying their daughter had been in an accident, Duane and Kathy Schuh raced to the hospital in Red Wing. When they walked in, they saw a nurse they knew.
“She looked up and saw us and said: ‘Oh, my God. I’m so sorry,’ ” Duane Schuh recalled in a phone interview from his home in River Falls.
Tasha Schuh was flown by helicopter to Mayo Clinic’s intensive care unit at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. She spent almost six months there, including eight days in a coma.
“She had septic shock, which most people don’t live through,” Duane Schuh said. “The doctors told us at Thanksgiving time that she was just hanging on by her little-finger nails, and we should go in and give her a kiss and pray for her.”
Tasha Schuh said she never lost consciousness when she fell.
“I remember hearing my neck break. It was horrible,” she said. “But I didn’t know what that meant. I come from a really small town, so I didn’t know anyone with a spinal-cord injury, so it was very, very crazy when they told me what my life was going to be like.”
Her first reaction was denial.
“When they told me I was going to be a quadriplegic, I was, like: ‘Oh my goodness, no. I did not sign up for this and this cannot be my life, and I refuse to live this way,’ ” she said. “I thought: ‘Yeah, this is what they say, but I’ll get myself out of it. Mind over matter. I am a strong person.’ ”
The fall nearly severed Schuh’s spinal cord. She was left with limited movement in her arms and wrists but cannot move any of her fingers.
When her doctors at Mayo learned she could move her wrists, they were ecstatic.
“I was, like: ‘Are you kidding me? So I can move my wrists, so what?’ ”
Schuh includes that story in her speeches. “I speak about the little things in life and about attitude and about how this is such a huge movement,” she says, moving her wrists in a circular motion. “This allows me to do everything that I do today.”
She can drive, move her wheelchair, feed herself, put on makeup, use a computer and sign copies of her book “My Last Step Backward” published in 2012 — all because she has movement in her wrists.
After more than five months at St. Marys, Schuh lived at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester for a month while undergoing therapy. “Seeing those kids at the Ronald McDonald House really made me realize, ‘You don’t have it so bad, and you’re going to be here,’ ” she said. “These kids don’t even know if they’re going to be here tomorrow with their illnesses and their diseases. That really is what started it — just realizing: ‘Yeah, this really stinks, but it’s not going to change, so move on. Stop the pity party, and focus on all these wonderful blessings of your family and your friends who were supportive … and your wrists.’ ”
But she said she certainly had her share of bad days, days when she asked “Why me?”
WCCO-TV reporter Darcy Pohland visited Schuh in Rochester and became her mentor. Pohland was in a 1983 diving accident that broke her neck and left her paralyzed from the chest down. She died in 2010 at age 48.
“She inspired me in so many ways and told me all the things that I would still be able to do,” Schuh said. “She said, ‘You’re going to be able to go to college, get married, have kids. Your life is going to be awesome. Is it going to be easy always? No, but regular life isn’t either. It’s just an added challenge. You’ll find a new normal.’ ”
“I easily could have sat home and felt sorry for myself, but where would that have gotten me?” she said. “Thankfully, I just had this little voice on the inside of me saying ‘Obviously you should have died, and you didn’t, so you must be here for a reason.’ I found out all that I had on the inside of me. It forced me to find out who I am.”
Schuh finished high school, graduating in 1999, and enrolled at Winona State University. She planned to major in psychology until a professor suggested she major in communications studies and become an inspirational speaker.
“Like every other college student, I was trying to figure out what I should do with my life,” she said. “It had been 2 1/2 years since my accident. … It was just, like, this moment. The light bulb went off, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s it.’ ”
She spoke publicly for the first time about her accident and recovery during her sophomore year at Winona State.
“I was 19 or 20, and I was crazy, super nervous,” she said. “After I was done, all these people came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, your story touched me. It really changed my life,’ and I thought to myself: ‘I like this. I like this feeling.’ ”
Said Duane Schuh: “You know those tests you take in school to find out what your strong suits are and what you might become? Well, Tasha’s came out that she was going to be a priest. Needless to say, we were Lutheran, so that was kind of a shock.”
But “all of her friends, whenever they were in trouble, would always call her, because she was a problem solver. She’s always been that way. She’s always been very gifted in speaking and talking to people.”
The Role of Faith
Tasha Schuh, who attends Abundant Life Church in River Falls, Wis., began speaking at churches in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
After graduating from Winona State in 2003, she decided to go back to school and get another bachelor’s degree — in theology — from Maranatha Christian College in Brooklyn Park. She graduated in June 2007.
“Faith has been a huge part of my journey,” Schuh said. “I became a Christian one year after my accident. I would not be where I am today without my faith — and my attitude — because you can have all the faith in the world, but if you don’t have a positive attitude, the glass is always half empty.”
Her favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
“Every hard thing that I have been through, I have seen him turn it to good,” she said.
Schuh’s singing is an example of God’s work, she said.
“When I had my accident, my doctors said I would never sing again,” she said. “It’s fun that I got to prove them wrong.”
“It’s really a miracle because my stomach muscles are paralyzed … making it physically impossible for me to sing,” she said.
Her signature song — the one she often uses to end her motivational speeches — is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It’s fitting, she said, because her accident occurred during a rehearsal for “The Wizard of Oz.”
She practices it in her home office, using her computer to play the music.
“I love sharing that song,” she said. “It’s about wondering if things are ever going to get better and seeing your dreams come true. It’s my full-circle song. I feel I am the most blessed person on this Earth. I have learned to focus on what I have, rather than what I have lost.”
In 2012, Schuh met Doug Michaels, who was a meteorologist for WQOW-TV in Eau Claire, Wis., through Christian Mingle, a dating website. They married in August.
“I saw her profile and thought it was very inspiring — her honesty and her being forthright in where she was at in her life with her injury,” Michaels said. “Just the fact that she wasn’t trying to hide anything. And her faith, obviously — that is something that is big to me. It was just a combination of attraction and honesty and how good of a heart I could tell she had.”
The couple plan to have children but say they are in no rush. “One of the first questions I had after the accident was, ‘Can I still get married and have kids?’ ” Schuh said. “They said ‘Yes,’ and I was, like, ‘OK, this life may be worth living.’ ”
Caregivers come to Schuh and Michaels’ house each morning and night — about four hours a day. When Schuh’s not traveling, she spends her days writing speeches, responding to emails and practicing her singing.
Michaels, who now travels with Schuh and helps handle her speaking schedule, said his wife’s story resonates with people.
“People can see that through her life and her struggles and journey, there’s always hope, no matter what your circumstances,” he said. “I think it challenges people who really listen to her message to challenge themselves on a daily basis.”
Schuh said she allows herself “two bad days a year.”
“Like anybody else, you have days you think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this stinks,’ and ‘Yes, this isn’t fair.’ I just don’t allow myself to stay there.”
Like Pohland did for her, Schuh serves as a mentor to people who have suffered lower-body injuries. “I tell them, ‘I’m not special. I’m human just like you are, but if I can do it, so can you,’ ” she said.
Schuh said she now celebrates the anniversary of her accident.
“I thought that was the worst day of my life for many years — the anniversary was such a sad day,” she said. “But that was really just the beginning of the most amazing life, and I honestly, genuinely mean this when I say, ‘I am thankful that that happened, and I would not be who I am today without it.’ Some people think ‘Oh, I bet you’d go back in a heartbeat.’ Absolutely not. I wouldn’t want to go back, because it really forced me to learn who I was and what this life is all about.”
By Mary Divine
Mary Divine can be reached at 651-228-5443. Follow her at twitter.com/MaryEDivine.
If you go
Tasha Schuh will perform with the Croix Chordsmen at 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday at Stillwater Junior High School. Tickets are $12; $10 for groups of six or more. Part of the proceeds will go to the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, Minn. For more information, go to stcroixvalleychapter.com.