LIMESTONE — Steve Schultz was troubled by the idea that many people pass away six months after retirement.
After he retired in June 2021 from Central Illinois Transportation, he decided to return to his childhood roots of farming to stay active.
Little did he know what lied ahead.
In December he would be hospitalized with COVID-19. There were much-too-close brushes with death. But with the persistence of his family, medical treatment and signs from God, Schultz survived and, amazingly, is home.
A Herscher native who has lived in Limestone for the past 44 years, Schultz has long been active in the community. He has served on the Limestone Township Fire Protection District since 1978 and is president of its Board of Trustees. He used to go door-to-door to raise money through its annual chicken barbecue.
He returned home to a hero’s welcome. Friends and family cheered as Schultz, 66, returned to Limestone on July 1 after spending 208 days in hospitals and care facilities to deal with long-term complications of COVID, or what is known as long COVID.
When Schultz got to drive his golf cart once again at the welcome parade, it was clear by the crowd’s smiles and tears that they were glad to have him back.
“It’s a miracle,” his wife, Cathy Schultz, 63, said.
Trouble breathing, continued coughing and ever-present fatigue hit Schultz in early December. He had a COVID-19 vaccination of Johnson & Johnson. After a few days of staying home, he tested positive for COVID-19. He went to the emergency room at Ascension St. Mary the next day, where he was soon put on a ventilator to help him breathe.
“It was so hard to go through it all,” Cathy said. “It was a nightmare.”
Schultz said he remembers nothing of this phase. He has bits and pieces of his experiences later, but not whole days until around April 10.
Most of the details come from his family — Cathy and their twin daughters, Kristi Hendershott and Kelli Schultz, 43 — who often were not allowed to visit him in hospital because of COVID-19 precautions but checked in at least twice daily.
“We could FaceTime him, he could listen to us,” Cathy said. “Maybe he heard us, maybe he didn’t, but we still talked to him.”
They leaned on family doctor, Jeff Long, for guidance, along with St. Mary’s liaison, Dr. Lynn McDonald. The family organized nightly prayer chains, getting the word out to friends and on Facebook to pray for Steve each night at 6 p.m.
As Steve developed COVID pneumonia, where COVID-19 attacks the lungs, and his condition worsened in the following weeks, his family wanted to try any treatment that could possibly help.
“We said as long as his organs are good and his labs are coming back okay, then we’re just gonna keep going,” Kelli said.
On Jan. 6, Steve’s right lung collapsed. Doctors recommended a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure to the front neck where a breathing tube is placed into the trachea, but they needed Schultz to reduce his oxygen and positive pressure intake and be able to survive for 80 seconds breathing completely without a ventilator.
When he would be partially weaned off oxygen and pressure, it would not last for long.
“It was a roller coaster,” Kelli said. “Every time something good would happen and we would be happy about something, then like within the 24 hours we would get a call or we would get something that he went backwards and it was just up and down.”
On Jan. 9, his levels were low enough for a tracheotomy to be performed by Dr. David Lang, and it was successful.
Schultz changed hospitals shortly after from St. Mary’s ICU to Ascension Holy Family in Des Plaines. He started to recover, become alert and get physical therapy for his muscle atrophy.
Then on Feb. 16, Schultz’s right lung collapsed again. He was transferred to Ascension Resurrection to get a second chest tube. The only thing that would help would be surgery to his lung, but the doctors did not think he would make it through surgery, according to the family.
The week of Feb. 23, Steve’s 66th birthday, was the sickest he had ever been, according to Hendershott, and he also developed sepsis during this period.
“We relied mostly on our faith,” Hendershott said.
They believed “God would find a way out,” and kept trying to get him scheduled for surgery.
Soon, the family had Steve transferred back to Holy Family, where a doctor, Bhupinder Singh, tried different approaches of treatment which improved his pneumonia and sepsis.
When Steve in March started to speak using a speaking valve, one word at a time, and got to be taken off a vent after 98 days, the family finally started to feel he was on the road to recovery.
Singh had a connection to Northwestern’s chief of thoracic surgery, Dr. Ankit Bharat, who agreed to meet with Schultz and later conduct surgery on his lung in April, much to the relief of his family.
On April 10, Steve’s trach was taken out and on April 11, Bharat’s team finished a successful four hour-plus surgery on his right lung.
After a recovery period at Northwestern, Schultz moved facilities twice for rehabilitation before switching to Riverside’s Miller Rehabilitation Center in Kankakee on May 23, where they said he got the best physical therapy.
“And with dad being as active as he was in the community, he knows so many people and he’s a very social person,” Hendershott said. “So we feel, and I think dad would say yes too, that it was so beneficial to get him back with his people.”
Schultz agreed he was impressed by Miller’s care and community. “Even the food was good,” he quipped.
Additionally, it was a relief that Cathy, who had been staying in hotels with her daughters or sisters throughout the past few months, could finally come home.
Schultz was motivated to recover, and even left months sooner than his physical therapist — someone he and the family knew — expected.
WELCOMING HOME SUPERMAN
All throughout Steve’s illness, the family received tremendous love and support from family and friends offering to help with mowing, dropping off food and making cash donations. The daughters reported 297 visits were made on Facebook.
“But if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where we’d have been at,” Schultz said, tearing up. He then perked up.
“I guess you touch a lot of souls when you sell a couple thousand dollars worth of chicken barbecue tickets.”
For the welcome home parade, organized by his daughters, the Limestone Fire Protection District picked escorted Schultz home in a convoy of firetrucks.
“It was a big Facebook event,” Hendershott said. “We got a couple of friends involved to help spread the word and Kelli organized getting a lot of the big equipment, taking care of and the layout of how the parade was going to be.”
“He’s a big ‘go big or go home’ kind of guy,” Kelli added, saying people knew to make it a big deal.
Bourbonnais Fire Protection District sent a firetruck, and several businesses and friends of the family brought out all kinds of semi trucks and a Peterbilt. Even the farm where he was working for in the fall, O’Connor Farms [Mark and Teri], brought over the tractor he’d used.
People gathered along the street with banners and fireworks to celebrate the return of “Superman” or “The Miracle Man.”
“It was quite touching,” Schultz said. “You see people that you haven’t seen for half a year or better.”
Now, he is still going to physical therapy, but has made great progress in the distance he can walk. Schultz gets short of breath from time to time and uses an oxygen tank to adjust. He lost a total of 105 pounds.
“I just pray that I don’t get it again,” he said. “I don’t wish this on anybody.”
Though he is still on a leave of absence from Limestone Fire and his other community roles, Schultz is looking forward to being able to golf, farm and go on vacation again.
He had to miss his grandson Rylan’s senior year baseball and basketball season, along with events he would normally never miss for his other three grandkids: Mikayla, 21, Hayden, 17 and Breck, 11.
“He won’t miss anything else,” Hendershott said.