By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN Delano Elementary School Principal Darren Schuler has never been more thankful for the start of a new school year.
“I’m hoping to be back here full time,” he said.
Schuler suffered a mild traumatic brain injury April 19, and doctors say he’s on track for a 100 percent recovery.
The day of the accident, Schuler and his children, Sam, 9, and Claudia, 11, were out looking for litter that had blown into the area over the winter.
“It was right around Earth Week, because my son came home and was excited to pick up trash,” Schuler said. “We were out in the woods in the back of our house.”
As they were walking, Schuler noticed a tree with a rotten trunk.
“In my mind, I’m thinking it would be good to knock it out before one of the kids pushes it and it falls on them,” he said.
The tree was overlooking a ravine, so Schuler decided to push the tree so that it would fall down the hill. He saw a large branch overhead, but didn’t think it would cause any trouble.
“I pushed once and it didn’t go, so I pushed one more time, and that is all I remember,” Schuler said.
Later on, Schuler found out that, most likely, the limb had broken off and hit him on the back of the head.
When Schuler regained consciousness, Claudia and Sam were there, asking if he was OK.
“When I stood up, I was woozy and fell down again,” Schuler said.
The children were able to help him stumble to the house, about 200 yards away, where they could call 911.
“Just getting up to the house was a struggle,” Schuler said.
When the ambulance arrived, he was taken to Ridgeview Hospital in Waconia. An MRI revealed a brain bleed, so he was transferred to Hennepin County Medical Center.
“There, they gave me another MRI and saw that the bleeding had stopped,” Schuler said.
Schuler’s next two days were spent in the hospital, where doctors could monitor him and make sure that the bleeding had quit for good.
Time to heal
When he got home, Schuler was optimistic that the recovery process would be short.
“People came to visit, and I’d say, ‘see you in a week or so,’” he recalled.
However, Schuler quickly realized that he didn’t feel the same as he did before the incident.
“Following a conversation was hard,” he said, especially if people were animated or spoke rapidly.
He tried going to Costco with his wife, but the store’s fluorescent lights were tough to handle.
“I could barely keep my eyes open,” he said. “It was an overload feeling.”
Schuler’s neurologist said that these symptoms are common after a brain injury, and that the best thing to do is give the brain as much time as it needs to heal.
“After a brain injury, you’re not supposed to overuse your brain though physical or mental activity,” Schuler said.
After talking to other people who’ve experienced brain injuries, Schuler decided to take off work the end of the school year.
Fortunately, assistant principal Corey Lahr was able to fulfill some of Schuler’s duties.
“He had started back in October, so he had a good feel for the position,” Schuler said. “He did a really nice job manning the ship, so to speak, and keeping it afloat.”
Schuler stayed in contact with Lahr through email, texting, phone calls, and Skype on a daily basis.
Lahr visited Schuler at home each Friday to review the week and plan for the one ahead, and Schuler also participated in hiring new staff members.
“I was involved in the interviews through Skype,” he said.
About the third week after the injury, Schuler’s neurologist said he was overdoing it, and advised him to cut back on computer time.
“When you’re on the computer, your brain is never relaxing,” Schuler said. “There’s always information coming in, which is not good for recovery.”
Schuler had been taking strong medication to prevent seizures and headaches, but he would still get headaches where his injury occurred.
“It’s some type of stressor that strikes it,” he said, explaining the cause of the headaches.
Pinpointing the stressors isn’t always easy, however.
“Basically, the advice is ‘don’t do much,’ which is obviously very hard,” Schuler said. “At first, I had a hard time tracking a paragraph in a newspaper. It was scary. You wonder if it’s going to be a lifelong thing.”
Even physical activities were mentally tiring.
“Early on, it was tough just getting down to the mailbox,” he said.
One activity was easy for Schuler, however sleeping.
He averaged about 10 hours per night, plus naps throughout the day.
“Your brain slows down, and it really helps the healing process,” Schuler said.
In June, Schuler went back to work nearly full time, and then took all of July off.
He started again in August, and is hoping to be back for good.
Schuler said his symptoms have improved greatly since spring, but he still limits computer time and tries to take breaks.
Because he appears healthy physically, Schuler said it can be hard for others to understand his injury.
“My children would say, ‘Dad, you look fine. Why can’t you play catch with us?’” Schuler said.
He hopes to be fully recovered soon, but the time it takes varies from patient to patient.
Friends, family, community members, and Delano School District staff have been extremely supportive, helpful, and patient, according to Schuler.
“Literally, I think I got a card from every student,” he said. “That really helped in the recovery process.”
The Delano Elementary School staff also organized a daily dinner for Schuler and his family. Departments developed a schedule for meals, and elementary secretary Nancy Wetter delivered them on her way home each evening.
“They did this every day for about four weeks,” Schuler said. “It was amazing.
Many people prayed for Schuler, including some he’s never met.
“I was on a prayer chain at my wife’s aunt’s church in Alexandria,” he said. “That was very meaningful, too.”
Schuler’s wife, Jennifer, has also been a valuable source of support.
“She’s been wonderful,” Schuler said. “My care was outstanding at home.”
As a registered nurse, Jennifer was able to understand medical terminology at appointments, and monitor Schuler’s symptoms.
Schuler will be visiting a neurologist this week to make sure he is transitioning into the busy school year without any trouble.
“We hope that will be the last doctor visit,” he said.
According to Schuler, the doctors told him he probably would have been dead or a quadriplegic if the branch had hit in a slightly different spot.
“You think about how lucky you are to be here every day,” he said.
Cutting wood at his father-in-law’s cabin, Schuler said he often heard the advice, “watch out for the widow maker,” referring to a hanging limb that could hit a person.
Although the advice stuck in his mind, he didn’t think that he’d get hit while pushing the tree in his backyard.
“It can happen quickly and without warning,” he said.
After the incident, Schuler said several people have told him that they’ve been more careful after hearing his story.
“If there’s one good thing that happened from all this, maybe it will help people to think first, make good choices, and be safe,” Schuler said.
To learn more about brain injuries, Schuler recommends the Brain Injury Association.