Mike Schultz, a professional snocross racer in Minnesota for 5 years, was at the top of his game on Dec. 13, 2008. He just started the season with a new team and was participating in the first qualifying race for the weekend. A slow start forced him to speed his way into the top five.
Halfway through the race, Schultz remembers charging down the hill. He was weaving and accidentally stepped off of the snow mobile. He put his foot down in reaction and his race ended there.
“The way that my foot hit the ground, it sent my knee into a full extension and all my weight went down right through the locked knee joint and just exploded it,” Schultz told O&P Business News. “It severed the popliteal artery and tore the main nerve that went down to the lower foot.”
Schultz lost a lot of blood as a result of his wounds and he was rushed to the local hospital where there was little they could do without the expertise of a trauma center.
“They were going to transfer me to Duluth via helicopter but the weather was really bad so the helicopter wasn’t able to fly,” Schultz said. “I had to take a 2-hour ambulance ride to Duluth.”
Though Schultz was in agonizing pain, the emergency medical technicians were not able to dispense pain medication due to the amount of blood he was losing. His only solace, that his wife Sara, a nurse, was able to take the ride with him.
Once in Duluth, Schultz was given medication and the damage was quickly assessed by medics awaiting his arrival.
“They called it an auto amputation,” he said. “[My lower leg] was just hanging on by a couple muscles. The medics came over and zipped open my pants because they could tell it wasn’t right. I could hear the blood gush out and at that point I knew it was pretty bad. At no time did I think I was going to lose my leg.”
Doctors couldn’t locate the nerve going to Schultz’s lower leg and he was non-responsive to touch. Physicians were unable to get blood flow to return from the foot back up to the heart; only down into the leg causing swelling and tissue damage. The doctors performed fasciotomy incisions to relieve the pressure on his lower leg and foot.
Schultz’s physicians were quick to point out the long-term damage of his accident and explained that his foot would never be the same again.
“We talked about it briefly,” Schultz said about the decision to amputate. “The team … came to the same conclusion.”
Following the amputation, Schultz spent 12 days in the hospital. During the last few, he started rehabilitation, exercising as much as possible with rubber bands. Beyond that, he did not undergo further rehabilitation.
“I got home and started exercising and getting back into shape and I started to feel better,” Schultz said.
Schultz was already aching to get back into the action. An avid racer, not only in snocross competitions but also on his dirt bike, sitting still was not an option.
“I actually got back on the snow mobile 2 weeks after I was home,” he confessed. “I ripped around the yard. I definitely wanted to see what I could do.”
It was not for another 2 weeks that Schultz had his first meeting with Chip Taylor at Prosthetic Laboratories of Rochester Inc. in Brainerd, Minn.
Leading up to his first appointment, just more than 5 weeks after the accident, Schultz researched high activity equipment and was prepared to get started right away.
“I met him … in mid-January,” Taylor said. “He had already almost completely healed from the amputation and that was pretty surprising. I think a lot of it had to do with his physical condition. He was in such good physical shape that he healed extremely quickly.”
As a result of Schultz’s optimum physical shape Taylor was able to get him walking after his first fitting, about 7 weeks after his amputation.
“He was not only comfortable in the prosthesis but he was able to walk out of my facility that day,” Taylor said. “He was able to take to the artificial limb and understand mechanically how it works. It really was astounding and encouraging to see how well he did that first day he got it.”
Taylor attributes part of Schultz’s fast recovery time to his desire to return to the activities he enjoys the most. Schultz appreciated Taylor’s desire to help him get there.
“I was lucky to have Prosthetic Laboratories in my hometown because I spent a lot of time doing fittings right from the get go,” Schultz said. “Chip said, ‘You’re going to do everything you did before.’ So that was satisfying.”
A custom knee
Toward the end of the snocross race season in March 2009, Schultz, who had stayed on as a coach following his accident, entered the mechanics race – a fun race for the retired racers and mechanics once things are finished for the season.
“I won it,” Schultz said. “I was pumped and that’s when I really started to think about building my custom race knee.”
He started considering the adaptations he would like to see within the knee joint to help him achieve his goals.
fWith a good handle on the range of motion and resistance he had in mind, he spent more than 1 month drawing up plans.
“I don’t know how to use CAD programs so I just have pages and pages … of different designs,” he said.
After that month of design work, he started building and in 1 week’s time, he completed his first prototype.
“I bolted it onto my socket and I took about 10 steps over to my dirt bike and hopped on and started ripping on it right away,” Schultz explained. “The smile on my face was so big. To put this custom knee on that I built, and just be able to rip right away … I was so happy.”
Taylor could not be happier to see Schultz’s success on all of these levels.
“This is one of the cool things about our profession and our field,” Taylor said. “In the field of prosthetics, a lot of the innovative, high-tech prosthetic components have been developed by amputees initially for themselves but they saw the potential for other patients to benefit.”
Back on track
From April to June he fine-tuned his custom-built knee. Around the same time, he heard of the 2009 Extremity Games (eX4). He immediately started training for that as well as the Summer X Games.
“It felt so good … to be able to get back up and start training for an event again,” he said. “We weren’t quite sure what to expect.”
Schultz won his first qualifying motocross race at eX4 – the perfect motivation for the rest of the weekend’s events.
He placed second in the final race.
By the time the 2009 Summer X Games began, Schultz had already completed his second knee prototype and was ready to give it the ultimate test.
At the final practice before the race, Schultz was able to complete all of the jumps and he felt as prepared as ever.
“I came out about third or so and then got into second place,” Schultz recalled. “About two laps into it, my foot came off the foot peg … so I lost a whole bunch of time but I got the foot back on and started charging again. At the end I started to make up a little bit of time but I was too far back and ended up with second place.”
Taylor had the chance to watch his patient in action and weighed in on what it feels like to watch him do what he loves most.
“Of course it was really satisfying,” he said. “My goal is to get any patient back to their maximum potential and reach their goals as quickly as we can.”
At the end of January, Schultz will take to the snow for competition once again.
“My two main events this winter on the snow mobile are going to be the fourth round of the ISOC national tour in Shakopee, Minn. And … adaptive snocross at the 2010 Winter X Games [in Aspen, Colo.],” he said.
For the ISOC event, he will be facing off in the professional class against the same competitors as before the accident.
Taylor is expecting nothing short of success no matter what place Schultz finishes.
“He is one of the most accomplished amputees that I’ve ever worked with; not only because he’s physically gifted, but he had the right attitude from the beginning when approaching prosthetic care,” Taylor said. “I know with his type of competitive spirit we just scratched the surface on his abilities.” — Jennifer Hoydicz