The former driver fights - from his wheelchair - for mobility, funding for his cause and wins for his team.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published April 2, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Sam Schmidt apologized for the clacking noise in the background, but given the length of his to-do list, multi-tasking was required.
So, he talked.
And he pedaled.
Talking on the phone comes easily to Schmidt, among millions worldwide who benefit from hands-free technology. Riding the stationary bike in his Nevada home, well, that's a little more complicated. Paralyzed from the chest down in a racing accident five years ago, Schmidt cannot move his legs. Tuesday, he pedaled 10 miles.
"You know those ab-busters they advertise on TV where they say you can plug electrodes into your stomach and watch TV and get six-pack abs? Well, it's not quite that easy," Schmidt said, pausing to catch his breath. "I have electrodes attached to my quads and glutes and the computer tells my muscles when to fire so I can peddle a bike. It's not passive. It's my muscles riding a bike."
Stationary, but pressing onward.
Schmidt, 40, is quadriplegic, a term that describes his paralysis in all four limbs, but not his state of being. For a man whose voluntary actions are limited to head turns and shoulder shrugs, Schmidt is full speed in pursuit of his goals: winning races as a team owner and walking down the aisle at his children's weddings.
Savannah, his oldest, is 7.
Fifteen years should do it.
A winning driver who measured success behind the wheel in fractions of a second, Schmidt stopped breathing for more than four minutes when his open-wheel car backed into a wall at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 2000. Fortunately, the Indy Racing League had a full trauma team and medical helicopter on site for the sanctioned preseason test, which Schmidt credits with saving his life.
Though it seemed like an ordinary crash, the forces at impact snapped Schmidt's head back, shattering his C3, C4 and C5 vertebra. In the vertical order of the spinal column, the damage was high, interrupting the flow of impulses from the brain to most of Schmidt's body.
That night, doctors at an Orlando hospital stabilized the injury with a pair of titanium rods, but told family members if Schmidt survived the next 48 hours, he would be paralyzed and need a ventilator to breathe for the rest of his life.
"Luckily, my wife and my dad didn't believe that," Schmidt said.
Schmidt's wife, Sheila, and father, Marv, sought a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. Marv was paralyzed while racing a dune buggy when Schmidt was 10, and though doctors said he would never talk or walk, he regained his speech and the use of his legs and one arm after years of rehab.
Schmidt became a patient of neurologist John McDonald, the doctor who treated actor Christopher Reeve, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Six weeks after the accident, Schmidt was off the ventilator, an incredible freedom.
He could breathe.
And so much more.
After six months of rehab in St. Louis, Schmidt returned to his family's home outside Las Vegas. Fourteen months after the accident, he founded Sam Schmidt Motorsports, a team that competes in the Infiniti Pro Series, an IRL development series. Schmidt's team won the series title last season with driver Thiago Medeiros.
"It makes me proud to be a Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver," said Travis Gregg, 26, in his second season with Schmidt. "It's not easy for him to come to races. It takes him a lot longer to get ready and it's hard for him, so I don't really like to take things for granted. He has a lot of experience as a driver and he can relay that. I try to do my best in everything and listen and learn. You really don't have any room to complain."
Not satisfied merely to rejoin the working world, Schmidt also founded the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, committed to helping people overcome spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders. Though funded separately, the race team and the foundation work together. Schmidt needs the foundation to walk again; racing gets the word out.
"The bottom line is I'm selfish," Schmidt said. "If someone said, "Hey, go raise $5-million and I'll put you under the knife and after three months of rehab you'll walk out of here,' I think anybody would give their all to do what it takes to walk out of there. That opportunity is not out there right now.
"The only way I'm going to be able to walk again is through the foundation and through awareness and lots of money. I want to do with motorsports what Christopher Reeve was able to do with the entertainment industry and the general public."
* * *
Schmidt, who could barely lift his head after the accident, now has feeling down to the bottom of his chest and midway down his back. He can't scratch his nose but has made progress with an intense regimen of physical rehab at least two hours a day.
Schmidt exercises the muscles in his upper body - shoulders, back, biceps and triceps - through electronic stimulation. He walks on a treadmill with the help of a parachute harness - what he calls his cherry picker - while his wife and physical therapist move his feet. He has a standing frame that holds him upright to keep the blood flowing from head to toe while he reads the computer or does work.
And he bikes.
As a result, Schmidt does not have the craggy, skin-and-bones look of most quadriplegics. The muscle tone and bone density in his legs is the same as before the accident. When the scientific world finds a way for him to walk again, he wants to be ready.
"He could just be laying in bed all day and doing nothing and I don't think he would be nearly as healthy as he is," said Sheila, who does not travel with Schmidt when the kids are in school. "I think it would have been a lot harder on our family if he had been any other way."
But Schmidt's is not the experience of most people with spinal cord injuries, 78 percent of whom are men, according to the University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Schmidt has resources: good insurance, a supportive family and an MBA in international finance from Pepperdine that enabled him to rejoin the working world. He has a career and a passion that give him incentive to spend two hours each morning getting dressed.
The equipment in his home, which he estimates to cost $20,000, keeps him healthy. Unlike most quads, he has not been hospitalized in the five years since the accident. Statistics, Schmidt said, indicate a high-level quad would be back in the hospital at least once a year with some type of pressure sore or internal problem.
Reeve, who was quadriplegic and on a ventilator after a horse-riding accident in 1995, died in October from a heart attack after developing an infection during treatment for a pressure wound.
"Whenever you heard about stem-cell research in China or Korea, boom, Christopher Reeve was on television talking about how we need to be doing that here," Schmidt said. "We had admittedly been riding on his coattails. Nobody can fill his shoes, but there are 10 of us around the country who need to pick up the slack."
Schmidt, who travels about 140 days a year with the help of a personal assistant, has a $20,000 custom wheelchair he operates with his head. Fitted to his specifications, the chair is his most important piece of equipment because he sits in it 14 hours a day. It goes forward, backward, pivots in either direction. After an incident in July, however, he was "black flagged" by his wife for aggressive driving.
Schmidt's chair, it so happens, is faster than most with a maximum speed of 8.5 mph and gears he changes with a button near his right cheek. It didn't take Schmidt long to find the chair's limit. Recently, he popped a wheelie with his daughter on the back, tipped over, hit his head and knocked himself out for a few minutes. When Sheila found out how it happened, she was neither surprised nor amused.
"Anything with wheels and see how fast it can go," she said.
During Friday morning's practice session on the street circuit in St. Petersburg, Schmidt was positioned on pit road as his cars maneuvered the 14-turn course. From there, he could smell the exhaust and hear the throaty rumble of 450-horsepower engines. A backpack, tube of lip balm, his credential and a hydration pack were strapped to the back of his chair.
Afterward, he sped away to the Infiniti Pro Series paddock and parked in front of a fan. From there he could oversee crew members working to fix crash damage to one of his race cars. His assistant, Myra Randall, dropped a few Tootsie Rolls into his shirt pocket for later.
* * *
Of course, there are times when the reality of Schmidt's situation sinks in, not so much entire days but quiet moments when he asks, "Why me?" When Savannah and 5-year-old Spencer ride their bikes around the block, Schmidt joins them in his wheelchair. But when they climb into bed in the morning to hug him, Schmidt cannot hug back.
"Usually it's when he realizes what he wishes he could be doing with the children," Sheila said. "Those are the times that it gets him thinking the most. Otherwise, he's so busy with every other aspect of his life that it just keeps him going. To look at him, to talk to him, he's still the same person. Sometimes I forget and think that he's going to go get the phone when it rings."
One day, he might.
Because Schmidt's spinal cord was not severed, doctors do not rule out a partial or complete recovery. But Schmidt knows science will need to play a part if he is to stride down the aisle at Savannah's wedding. Stem cell research, a controversial subject in the United States, is the key to regenerating the nervous system.
"With things we're seeing internationally with research in Portugal and China and Korea and Australia, I don't think that's an unachievable goal," he said. "It's money and politics. If we had a week's worth of the budget (for the war) in Iraq, I think I'd be walking in five years."
Along the way, he said, there will be many victories. Bowel and bladder control and sexual function are uncomfortable topics for most people, but everyday facts of life for the nearly 250,000 people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries. Drugs are being developed to reduce the initial damage of spinal cord injuries, which means fewer people will leave hospitals unable to walk.
Meanwhile, Schmidt will continue to travel the country with his race team, with occasional stops in Washington to speak to politicians. His foundation has a Day at the Races program in which hundreds of people with spinal cord injuries are Schmidt's guest at certain races, where he does his best to inspire.
"Once you get some momentum, figure out what it is you like doing during the day, the easier it is to go to the gym and come home and eat dinner," he said. "Before you know it, time is just flying by."