Ron and Beth Skulas have a lot to smile about after Ron's improbable journey back from a horrific injury.
SYLVANIA, Ohio - As Myron "Ron" Skulas prepared to scale the old TV antenna adjacent to his Sylvania Township home, he gave little thought to any potential danger. After all, he'd climbed the tower a hundred times or more, he figured, without incident.
This day, Nov. 17, 2007, a Thursday, was different. As he worked his way toward the roof, where leaf-clogged gutters awaited, the tower, rusted at its base, snapped, sending the 285-pound Skulas crashing to the ground, beneath the fallen antenna.
Skulas, retired Army with a wry wit, remembers his first words: "I'm not dead. That's good. Where's my glasses?"
The glasses were within an arm's reach. Skulas fetched them, wriggled out from under the antenna and crawled into the house, where he dialed 911. At Toledo Hospital, doctors diagnosed a lumbar fracture - painful and problematic, but not life-threatening. Skulas was admitted but expected to be released shortly.
Two days later, while his family watched the Ohio State-Michigan football game in his hospital room, Skulas - without warning - stopped breathing. He was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit and intubated. Tests revealed that a large clot, known as a saddle embolism, had lodged in the area above his lungs, and that other, smaller clots had formed nearby. His condition quickly turned grave.
As Skulas later recalled: "That's when things went from bad to really bad."
With the clot certain to kill him, Skulas's girlfriend, Beth Maggard, a registered nurse working in Cincinnati, and his sister, Irene Skulas, had only minutes to consider a procedure known as angiojet which might eliminate the saddle clot but also could result in his death. After conferring, Irene Skulas gave the OK.
"It was very high risk; I would say a 60/40 or even 70/30 [chance of not surviving]," said Dr. David Epperson of Toledo Critical Care, whose four-physician team helped direct Skulas's care.
Doctors removed enough of the clot to restore some blood and oxygen flow to Skulas's lungs. Still, his situation was so perilous a coma was medically induced in an effort to stabilize his condition.
One life threat after another
Once the clot dissipated, attention turned to other crises that arose one after the other. One of Skulas's kidneys began hemorrhaging. Upon inspection, doctors discovered the kidney had been lacerated in the fall. More than 14 units of blood and two procedures were required to stem that potentially fatal disaster.
Skulas, still in a coma, made it to Thanksgiving. Then, accumulative trauma to his body sent his lungs into respiratory distress, another potential killer. A procedure in which they tossed Skulas's secured body in a flipping motion eventually cleared his lungs, but it took three efforts and the violent motion opened a large sore near his tailbone.
If that wasn't enough, the many drugs used to keep him alive along with his weakened condition caused his good kidney to shut down. He was placed on dialysis. Then, for good measure, his blood became infected - another frequent killer. Skulas survived that, too.
Meanwhile, family and scores of friends spent hours at his bedside. Sally Grether, a member of St. Elias Antiochian Christian Orthodox Church, where Skulas is a sub-deacon, recalled her daily vigil: "We prayed for him, and we prayed for the doctors and nurses who took care of him. They were unbelievably skilled. We held on to the hope that he would survive and be with us again. To what extent, we had no idea."
Grether and the others who were there saw a comatose man down 50 pounds with bones protruding from his arms and a pair of calves turned to mush. A tube traveled from his trachea to a ventilator, providing him with air, and five intravenous lines were attached to his neck area, dispensing nourishment and the drugs that kept him asleep and pain free.
The sight was particularly hard on Skulas's sons, Mark, 27, and Paul, 24. In October, 2005, their mother, Diane Skulas - Ron's wife of 27 years - died after a bout with cancer. Skulas recalled that a doctor told Mark in the early stages of his ICU stay: "Your Dad is more dead than alive. He's trying hard to die, and we're trying hard not to let him."
About that time, a nurse called Paul, a U.S. Marine based in Cherry Point, N.C. and told him: “If you want to see your father alive you need to come here now.”
Back from the dead
Christmas passed. Along came 2008. Gradually, Skulas's condition improved. His doctors, impressed with his progress, began weaning him off the drugs. Finally, on Jan. 15, two months after his accident, he emerged from his coma. He remembers: "My first thought was, 'I'm in a hospital room. I screwed up.' Then I felt the tubes and thought, 'Oh, I screwed up bad.' When I couldn't move my legs I thought, 'This isn't good at all.'"
In fact, the news was all good. On Feb. 13, the day before his 53rd birthday, Skulas was transferred to the rehabilitation unit at Flower Hospital, where from his room he saw the sun for the first time in three months. "I think that was the best therapy for me; I got to see nature," he said.
He couldn't walk, he couldn't even stand; the drugs had had a debilitating effect on his body, according to Dr. Epperson. But, he was alive. Two days later, Mark and Paul called to tell their father they were engaged to be married. Not wanting to be outdone by his sons, Skulas privately contemplated a wedding date with Maggard. "Yes," he thought, "things are looking up."
Skulas's rehabilitation was an arduous process. His therapists, who were as skilled as his doctors and nurses, pushed him. As someone with 21 years of military service and the determination of a bull elephant, he was up to the task. Each achievement, no matter how small, was perceived as a significant step. One day, with the aid of a lift and a walker, he stood for 130 seconds. He later reported his progress to Maggard in a phone call, as he did every evening.
"It was so exciting to hear that," she recalled. "We didn't know what to expect."
In mid-March, Skulas moved from Flower to Lake Park Nursing Facility. Then, on the last day of the month - he thinks - with four inches of new snow on the ground, Beth shoveled the driveway at Skulas's house, drove a few miles to Lake Park, and helped him into his Honda Element. On their way home, they stopped at nearby St. Elias, where an emotional and grateful Skulas prayed in front of an icon of Mary. At home after a 4 1/2 month absence, one of the first things he noticed was the Christmas tree, put there by his son, Paul, and good friends, Cyril and Carol Yonov.
"Paul told me, 'We'll take it down when Dad gets home, [after] we celebrate Christmas,'" Skulas said.
Much work remained, as Skulas attempted to become whole again - physically and mentally. The drugs and the stress from his ordeal left him an emotional wreck for months. Tears frequently appeared and could not be controlled, while frightening nightmares persisted. Finally, about a year ago, the crying and bad dreams subsided.
Meanwhile, soon after Skulas's release from Lake Park, another friend, Allen Fingerle, began turning up to help him with daily walks. The first day Skulas made it to his mail box but was exhausted. Each day, they worked their way up his street, one house at a time. By last summer, motorists driving down busy Flanders Road were able to see Skulas, aided by his walker, and Fingerle tooling along the berm.
A new man
Day by day, month by month, Skulas improved. He returned to St. Elias, where his booming voice, missing for so many months, was a welcome sound, in particular to the priest, Very Rev. Fr. Paul Albert, who had been by his side throughout.
Last Christmas, Skulas returned to Toledo Hospital bearing gifts for the doctors and nurses who saved him. Dr. Epperson said he was grateful for the gesture and impressed with Skulas's progress.
So how did Skulas survive what would have killed so many others?
"He's a very, very special individual," Dr. Epperson said. "He has the will. He has the determination. He has the right personality. He's a fighter."
And, something else.
"I think," Dr. Epperson explained, "that the majority of people who survive this have strong family and social support. They have people who are helping them and praying for them. [Frankly], I think there's a lot of medicine that doctors may or may not want to admit are beyond their control."
Skulas, now 54, and Maggard, 53, were married in May. Last month, he moved into his wife's suburban Cincinnati home. Possessor of a PhD in communications, Skulas hopes to return to work shortly. Meanwhile, he continues his rebuilding his body, which is up to 270 pounds, much of it muscle. Surprising developments continue. His neurosurgeons told him he would never regain full use of his right foot, which has required an orthotic brace when he walks. Last week, during his daily three-mile stroll he suddenly stopped one mile from the finish, removed the orthotic, and walked on without any issue or discomfort.
"God has worked [another one] for me," he said.
Not surprisingly, Skulas has a different view on life - a softer, more sobering perspective than before. "My first thing in the morning is to thank God for the gift of the day. Some people will say nice little expressions. 'Oh, thank you, it's a beautiful day.' No, dude, thank you! Each and every day is a gift until He decides I've worn out my welcome."
The only sad part is this, best expressed by Sally Grether of St. Elias. She and Skulas's many friends had just gotten used to him being back in church when she heard he was moving.
"You're leaving?" she asked.
Skulas, reminding Grether where he had been not so long ago, had the perfect response.
"Ah," he said, "but I can come back."
Reported by George J. Tanber firstname.lastname@example.org
[Corrections: Skulas was previously identified as a deacon at his church; he's a sub-deacon. Irene Skulas is his sister, not his mother, as previously reported.]