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23-year-old looks forward to regaining independence
Zachary Schmude amazes his family with his positive attitude and continuing recuperation from the severe accident that could have taken his life. Zach is seen here in late December with his mother, Rachel Schmude, father, Brian Schmude and siblings, all from White Oak. (Submitted photo)
One man’s tragedy can be another person’s survival guide.
On Nov. 3, 23-year-old Zachary Schmude of White Oak went to work as usual, never foreseeing an accident that would alter the rest of his life.
Now, he wants to share his story and help people in similar situations.
“I want people to know they can persevere through something horrible and if I inspire one person, then I will be happy,” Schmude said. “I will do the same stuff I did before, but in a wheelchair.”
In November, Schmude and his brother Nate were performing a sewer repair for a customer in North Versailles Twp.. “It’s a straightforward job for us, but the nature of the hillside made digging and using the excavator a little tricky,” he said.
“We had dug about two feet deep when we uncovered a live service gas line. Nate was in the excavator and had moved it up the hill towards the house,” he said. “As my brother was readjusting the equipment, I had gotten into the ditch to fully expose the gas line and make it easier for him to see it.”
“After a few minutes, the machine lost its traction, tipping over and entrapping me. Within seconds, I had come to my senses and realized what had happened,” he said.
Schmude’s brother jumped out of the excavator unharmed but in full panic and shock.
Schmude said, “There was nothing my brother could do to get me out of the ditch.”
When the excavator tipped, Schmude was bending over and the huge machine impacted his spine, folding his body in half on top of himself. “This resulted in me holding myself up on my elbows for 50 minutes while I was in the ditch to keep the pressure off of my lungs,“ he said. During that time, he noticed his head had split open and there was blood rushing off his head into the dirt in front of him.
When first responders arrived at the scene they devised a plan to rescue him. Rescuers started to carefully dig a slope on the left side of the ditch in order for them to pull him out. “But, that wasn’t as easy as you would think,” said Schmude. “They also had to break two windows in the cab and cut the frame of the machine in order to give themselves enough room to pull me out,” he said.
Schmude said he was pulled out of the ditch and carefully carried to a stretcher. Emergency personnel placed a C-collar brace on him to stabilize his neck. He was wheeled to a waiting ambulance where they started IV fluids and assessed his injuries. He was then transported to a waiting medevac helicopter and flown to Allegheny General Hospital.
Zachary Schmude, 23, was in intensive care at Allegheny General Hospital after being trapped in a ditch by an excavator. His mother said, “My son could have been taken away that day.” (Submitted photo)
After 20 minutes of arriving at the hospital, he was rushed into emergency surgery to check for internal bleeding or any underlying injuries. On Nov. 4, Schmude had back surgery that lasted six hours.
He had a vertebrae fracture in his neck, two fractured ribs on the left side, 5 staples in his head and a completely severed spinal cord at the base of his thoracic spine.
“My lengthy surgery consisted of a spinal fusion from T4-L2, a spinal fusion is placing a long rod in my back to stabilize my spine, six cross braces, a hefty amount of screws and some sort of compound in my spine at T10/T11 to promote healing in order for the bone to grow back,” he said.
“I am a paraplegic, the chances of me ever regaining any type of feeling or function in my legs again is very, very slim,” he said.
Rachel Schmude said, “My son told me he knew the minute the accident happened that he was paralyzed and had to come to terms with it right then. When I reflect back to that horrible day, I’m just amazed by what he’s overcome.”
“That day could have broken him but he’s come out on top,” she said.
Adapting to all the changes from the life-altering accident hasn't been easy for Schmude and he had to work hard, with a positive attitude, to relearn everything he’s ever known. “I’ve learned how to sit up straight without using my hands, how to move core muscles in order to gain core muscle strength, transfer myself from one location to the next and even learn how to control my bowel and bladder again,” he said.
“I still have a very long road of recovery ahead of me but soon enough, I’ll learn to drive again by using hand controls in my car and plan to be fully independent within the next year,” he said.
Vickie Babyak is a photographer and freelance writer from Dravosburg. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published January 31, 2023.