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One move backward, now striding forward

Tasha Schuh is writing a book about her life, and although the story is not finished, she has the title: "My Last Step Backwards."

That phrase is full of meanings.

It means the step Schuh took Tuesday, Nov. 11, 1997, when during a scene change for a school musical, she moved back, dropped through an open trap door and fell 16 feet onto a cement floor.

That single step made Schuh a quadriplegic, destined to never take another step.

But the title also indicates the direction Schuh's life has taken in the past 14 years.

"I just have to pinch myself at how well things have turned out," said Schuh last Thursday during an interview at her picturesquely situated home just outside Ellsworth.

"I'm really thankful that my accident happened," she says sincerely. "I never thought I would say that.

"It's been a crazy journey. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, but I wouldn't trade my life with anyone."

In September Schuh was named Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin. In 2012 she'll compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair USA.

"I've done more sitting in this wheelchair than I ever would have done walking," says Schuh, who will turn 31 in December.

She was 16 and a junior at Ellsworth High School in the fall of 1997 when she was cast as a chorus member in the school's production of "The Wizard of Oz."

The last week of rehearsals was hectic. The chorus' scene changes weren't going well, and the cast members' positions were changed.

Schuh says when someone told her to move, she stepped back not knowing that the trap door was behind her and open.

She was transported to St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn., where she was told that her spinal cord had been crushed at the C-5 level.

She thought she had no future, that there was no point in living.

Then when it seemed things couldn't get worse, they did. She got pneumonia and septic shock, and needed round the clock care.

End of dreams?

"It's a miracle that I'm here today," says Schuh.

When they told her she'd never walk again, she saw only despair.

"I wanted to jump out a window and die. I thought my life was over. I didn't want this to be my life."

She had been at an age when young people dream and make plans.

"It seemed like my dreams ended," says Schuh.

She envisioned never being able to leave home, spending her life looking out the window, bored and wishing the accident had never happened.

She spent 3 1/2 months in the intensive care unit followed by five months in rehab and then a month in the Ronald McDonald House while her family prepared a new handicapped accessible home for her in Ellsworth.

Before the house was finished, she moved back to Ellsworth into a friend's home so she could go to prom.

"That was a promise I made to my friends," says Schuh. "That was my biggest goal when I was in the hospital.

"It's so important to have those goals. I was like I just want to get home and be with my friends and get some sense of normalcy."

Still normal wasn't what it had been. Schuh said she spent a good six to nine months feeling depressed, frustrated and purposeless.

Slowly her attitude changed.

She compared the reason for the change to television's Dr. Phil asking, "How's that working for you?"

All her life her parents had taught her to never quit, to persevere. "Some of those lessons started taking hold," says Schuh. "It was very gradual. It was not an overnight change. It was slowly putting one foot in front of the other."

It dawned on her: "This is your life now no matter what."

Right about that time, she says, she truly became a Christian.

"I grew up going to church, but it was never as personal as it was at this time."

First high school,

then on to college

She had missed six months of high school, but with the help of a tutor, Schuh caught up and graduated with her classmates.

Then she tackled college, enrolling at Winona State University.

"I just jumped in with both feet," she says, smiling at the phrase. Her Ellsworth friend, Brooke Hines, became her roommate.

The university did its part too. Her room was completely handicapped accessible, other students took class notes for her, and, since she could use her wrists but not her fingers, she learned to type with a special device.

She did all her own papers, typing one letter at a time.

"I never handed in anything late," she says. By her junior and senior years she was writing 20- and 30-page papers.

"I had amazing friends, amazing support and just was seeing life slowly but surely turn around."

It was slow. She needed help with personal care which meant keeping to her caregivers' schedule and not having the time that other students had to do their homework.

"It was real frustrating because my classmates could pull all-nighters, but that was not an option for me," says Schuh. "I had to be very disciplined."

But at the same time, she took pride in the self-discipline and organization it took for her to complete assignments.

She made few new friends her freshman year, but that, she says, was her own fault.

"I expected people to knock on my door, and say, 'Do you want to be my friend?'"

During her sophomore year, she became involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, made friends there and got to know her neighbors.

In four and a half years, after changing her major three times, she earned a degree in communication studies with a minor in music.

Motivational speaking

By the time she graduated from WSU, Schuh was doing some public speaking, mostly to classes, talking about what she'd been through. She knew she wanted to continue that and to reach out to churches and other organizations.

She moved back to Ellsworth and in fall of 2004 enrolled at Maranatha College in Brooklyn Park, Minn., to earn a degree in theology.

As she developed her speaking skills, she sought out other motivational speakers for advice. They told her to just start.

So she did an Internet search to find 250 middle and high schools in the region and sent out letters to them and to churches. The response was almost immediate.

"My phone started ringing, and it's never stopped," she says.

Her calendar shows seven speaking engagements in September, six in October and another six already for the rest of 2011.

While the story of her life can't change, her message is different each time she speaks to another group, says Schuh.

"It's always changing," she says. "I've learned so much in this journey. When I speak, it's like which of these 500 things am I going to share this time?"

Driving again

Schuh had gotten a driver's license before her accident, but it took her a full two years to gain the strength and endurance to try to again.

"Driving with your arms is completely different than driving with your legs," she says.

It was difficult, she says, to get the hang of starting and stopping "without ejecting my passenger."

She got a mini-van equipped with handles and straps that let her control the brakes and gas with her wrists and started with her father's help.

"My dad really was the brave one that got in the passenger seat with me," says Schuh.

"Now it's like riding a bike," she says. Because she can't get in and out of other people's vehicles, when she goes, even with others, Schuh is the driver and has put 160,000 miles on her six-year-old van.

Being the driver rather than the passenger is great, she says, because "I like to be in control."

The book

Schuh knows she can't speak long enough to tell her full story at any one time, so she's writing a book.

"The book is for everyone," she says. "All of us will go through hard times. It's just the decision of what we're going to do afterwards."

She adds, "There's always hope. There's never a situation that's hopeless, and so much good can come from bad.

"No one's exempt from having troubles. Sometimes it's the trouble that makes you the person you are and makes you better."

This past spring she was bedridden for over two months with illness.

"It forced me to slow down because my life was probably a little too busy," says Schuh.

Her friend, Melissa Krause, rigged up an iPad so Schuh could read and work on her book. Still the project wasn't going well and she was thinking of throwing the whole thing away.

Then Jan Pavloski called and said her schedule had opened up unexpectedly, and she offered to help with the book.

"For me, I've just realized that life is all about waiting," says Schuh.

Ms. Wheelchair

Schuh came across the Ms. Wheelchair program over a year ago but felt she was too busy to fill out the application then.

But this year, little by little, she filled out the extensive application which was due right after Labor Day and learned just a couple of weeks ago that she had earned the Wisconsin title.

According to its website, the mission of the program, based in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, is to "promote glamour, self-confidence and community service" and to celebrate the achievements of women with disabilities.

As Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, Schuh will participate next July in the four-day competition for the title of Ms. Wheelchair USA.

Schuh was ordained as a pastor at Abundant Life Church in River Falls in April. She serves part-time there as director of services, is qualified to do counseling and has performed 10 or 12 weddings.

She also works from her home for a travel company.

Her life would be a lot easier if she could walk, says Schuh, but she doubts she would be happier.

"I'm happy sitting right here in this wheelchair," she says. "If I were to walk, it would just be a perk."

Her life, she says, includes a home with amazing views out every window, loving family and friends and rewarding work.

"I'm way more independent than I ever thought possible," she admits. While she didn't always see her injury as an opportunity, she says it was.

"It's really made me what I am today, and I wouldn't have wanted to not go through this."

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.