The Drive to Keep Going
After a Devastating Accident, Aurora Surgeons Help Patient Get Back on the Road
On November 3, 1997, Robert Schwabe's life changed in mere seconds.
One second, he was driving in a heavy mix of November snow and sleet. The next second, or so it seemed, Robert woke up surprised to see his father's face. "I thought I was home in bed, so I said, 'Dad, what are you doing in my bedroom?'"
It was then that he felt the tubes on his face, arms and body. "I knew I was in the hospital, and I knew I wasn't in good shape," he said.
Robert was right. He would spend the next 16 years undergoing surgeries and physical therapy for injuries from an accident he couldn't even remember.
Robert has always had a love of exploring the great outdoors: camping, fishing and hunting. He had been a motorcycle enthusiast for as long as he can remember. As a Harley owner, he'd put tens of thousands of miles on his bikes, traveling throughout the state, region and country. Riding was a hobby, passion and inspiration.
And now, it was unlikely that he'd ever ride a bike again.
Robert's injuries were extensive: a concussion, fractured sternum, several other breaks and fractures. Worst of all, his left foot was almost shorn off.
There was some discussion of amputating Robert's leg, as the damage was so extensive. However, Robert's father pleaded with doctors to save the limb, if possible.
"It was a 10-12 hour surgery," Robert recalls. "It was touch-and-go for a couple days. The muscle needed to live. If not, my leg would have to be amputated."
Thankfully, the surgery was a success, although Robert did need several reconstructive surgeries afterward. "At one point, one shoe size was an 11. The other was a 15," he explains, noting how swollen his foot was.
Due to the extensive surgery and post-care needed, Robert was bedridden for 23 hours a day. "I could only get up to use the restroom," he notes. The Aurora Visiting Nurse Association staff came to his house every day to monitor his ankle and administer antibiotics for several weeks.
Once his leg had healed, Robert began physical therapy, the next step of his recovery process. At physical therapy, he was faced with a daunting task – learning to walk again. But in his own words, Robert is "a fighter" and he knew he would walk again. "I wasn't going to be told I couldn't do anything." In his joking manner, he added, "Still, I thought I'd stay off the stunt circuit for a while."
While Robert is an admitted jokester, and always ready with a smile, he hid excruciating pain from family and friends. Though he was able to walk, it was difficult – even agonizing. For several years, he "just got by daily." Eventually the pain became too much. With the support of his wife, Dalelynn, Robert reached out to specialists at Aurora Health Care for help.
Creating a Better Quality of Life
Robert first sought help with James E. Stoll, MD. Robert had originally seen Dr. Stoll in 1992 for back surgery. The surgery had been a success, so Robert went back to the doctor he trusted.
"We had a long talk in his office," Robert recalls. "We had a common goal – creating a better quality of life." They determined that Robert needed many surgeries – on his back, ankle and knees. In December 2009, Robert started the process with his second back surgery, again with Dr. Stoll.
In January 2011, he went back to Aurora, where Eric Malicky, MD, repaired his ankle.
"I had a total ankle repair on my left ankle," Robert explains. His left ankle was not functional, and a large source of pain.
"He tended to vault over his ankle when he walked," says Dr. Malicky. "This put a lot of pressure towards the front of his foot, which put even more pressure on his ankle, his back, his knees. His whole gate was very deformed, unusual and painful to say the least.
"The beauty of the ankle replacement is that we can restore motion in the joint, just like a knee replacement or a hip replacement. We can eliminate pain."
Prior to surgery, there was almost no rotation. After surgery, he was able to rotate his ankle 30 degrees.
"Thirty degrees is a very good number to look for in ankle mobility," explains Dr. Malicky.
Robert's wife, Dalelynn, emphasizes the change she saw in Robert. "When you start at nothing, even a few degrees are amazing. It makes such a huge difference."
In June 2011, Robert saw Bruce Faure, MD for double knee replacement surgery. "He was amazed at how bad they were for a 47-year-old," Robert recalls. Yet the surgery was another successful step to building a better quality of life.
In a total of 18 months, Robert had surgery on his spine, left ankle and both knees. For most people, this would be unthinkable, but Robert has gone through all surgeries with determination and spirit. "I'm not a quitter," he smiles.
Today, Robert says, "recovery is going good." From a starting point of zero, his physical ability is at about 25 to 40 percent, depending on the day. While this may seem limiting to some, Robert explains "50 percent would seem like 100 percent." And with his resolve, he will undoubtedly surpass that.
A Network of Support
Today, Robert is optimistic about the future. He loves being able to hold his grandchildren and to go for short walks with his wife. He admits that he could not have gone through his 16-year journey without the support of his family.
"I didn't want my family to know how bad the pain was. I wanted to give my kids a normal life as 'Dad.' I wanted to be a great husband to my wife." He is grateful they encouraged him to seek help.
Now, Robert encourages people with pain to reach out. "Put your pride aside, go to the doctor, and ask for help. Ask 'What can we do?'"
Robert and his family are grateful for the specialists at Aurora. "Dr. Stoll gave me the courage to take steps for major surgery. He started the ball rolling," Robert explains.
He has equal praise for Dr. Malicky, who performed surgery on his ankle. "I asked, 'Can we fix it? If not, just take it off." Robert was impressed with the partnership the doctor offered. "Dr. Malicky said, 'We'll fix it – but I'll work with you.'"
"Working with a patient is what makes my job fun and gratifying. It's what gets me up every day to go to work," Dr. Malicky explains.
Robert was impressed by the relationships the doctors forged. "I asked, 'Who would you have work on your family?'" Throughout the years, he was provided referrals he could rely on. "It was seamless," Robert notes. He didn't have to "start over" with each new doctor, as they all worked together to provide a solid continuum of care.
"They all have been just fantastic people," Robert concludes. "Just fantastic."
As his 16-year healing journey comes to an end, Robert's adventure is just beginning.
Last summer, he took his first motorcycle ride in years.
"I probably shouldn't have," he grins, "but it felt so good to be back on the road."
Living with bone or joint pain? At Aurora Health Care, we offer you one of the largest, most experienced groups of orthopedic specialists in Wisconsin. Find a specialist and learn more about our award-winning programs.