Ben Schultz, 30, has a favorite memory: He's sitting in a wheelchair shortly after having a shunt inserted in his brain and he's playing patty-cake with his daughter, Nora. When they finish, he kisses her tenderly on the top of her head.
Except it's not really a memory. It's a past scene that Ben loves to revisit on video, not one he actually remembers. But that's okay. He's just incredibly grateful to be here to reexperience it.
On June 5, 2017, Ben was on the job as a firefighter in Anchorage, Alaska, when he fell 95 feet down the ladder of a fire truck while training. Odds say that he shouldn't have survived.
"To put it in perspective, that same week a firefighter in Los Angeles fell 30 feet and perished. There is no logical explanation why I am still breathing, let alone running, hiking, biking and swimming," said Ben. "I call it the ultimate second chance."
Ben sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He also shattered both ankles upon his landing—which were fused and rebuilt with fake cartilage—fractured five ribs and experienced severe internal organ damage. He's gone through 15 surgeries, three of which were on his brain. He had to start over from the beginning, learning to walk, converse and cognitively process through difficult tasks again.
"With the distance I fell, I am incredibly lucky to not have had a spinal cord injury. Every day, and each step I take, is a gift," Ben says.
After coming out of a nine-week-long coma, Ben was transferred to Craig Hospital where he spent eight months recovering from his fall. He started out in a wheelchair before graduating to a walker, cane, knee-scooter and finally to his own two feet. Today, he gets outside and active every chance he gets. This spring he ran a half-marathon, and he just finished the hardest 5K race in the nation, Seward's Mount Marathon—3.1 miles with a 3,022-ft. elevation gain—near his hometown of Anchorage.
"The team at Craig is incredible. Their positive energy got me through the darkest days of my life," Ben says. "They motivated me to never stop pursuing my dreams, always encouraging me to think outside the box when it came to my injuries."
Ben names several team members, including Lisa Prang, Barbara Fritz, Debra Schumann, Norian Matta, Heidi Schneider and Joy Foster, for going way above and beyond the call of duty. He also says having weekly support meetings to process the challenges that families of patients with TBIs go through was invaluable.
"The weekly meetings were absolutely impactful for helping us decompress and process," he adds.
Ben benefited from the highly specialized technical equipment in the PEAK Center at Craig. The center is at the forefront of innovation when it comes to helping individuals recover from neurological disorders. He found the Lokomat robotic locomotor training system to be especially helpful. It uses a harness over a treadmill to enable patients with little leg movement to walk. The technology provides biofeedback to activate motor skills and muscle memory.
"When I could hardly walk without agony, the device helped me get my gait back," Ben says.
Ben also participated in the donor-funded Therapeutic Recreation program, which got him back on a bike and to being an athlete again. His family took advantage of family housing on the Craig campus—a super helpful arrangement when you live somewhere far away, like Alaska.
"When I was at Craig, I never wanted to stop healing. I simply refused to be a couch potato," Ben says.
As a trained paramedic and firefighter, he hopes to one day be back to full duty. For that to happen, the shunt in his brain would need to be removed, and doctors would need to detect zero swelling in his brain. His neuropsychology results would also need to improve to give him the capacity to, once again, protect lives and property. Until that day, he's happy to simply be able to take his kids fishing and hiking and be back at the department with his coworkers, fulfilling an administrative role.
"One of the trauma surgeons that fought for my life in Anchorage told my parents, 'He needs to go to Craig.' He knew all that Craig offered and that it was the right place for me," Ben says.
Ben's strong faith keeps him motivated and looking forward to the next race to complete, the next mountain to peak. He's already begun training for the HooDoo Half Marathon happening in Fairbanks in October.
"I've come farther than any of my doctors initially imagined," Ben says. "And I plan to keep going."