Oklahoma State University
Hadley and Mr. Leo: A friendship rises from struggle
By Stetson Payne
SKIATOOK — Apart from Leo Schmitz’s Dixon zero-turn mower and its motor, the hills above Skiatook Lake are quiet, still waking up as the sun dries the morning dew. The mower turns toward the house on this Saturday morning, churning through the unruly Bermuda grass. When cut and dried, the grass makes a tasty treat for the miniature horses in the barn.
Leo and his wife, Sharon, built the house when it was the only one on the street. They spent weeks clearing the four acres of boulders and blackjack trees with heavy equipment.
“We built this place when we could both do all the work around here,” Leo said. “Now, with this, I don’t know.”
Leo, 55, is careful to put his prosthetic leg forward when he steps off the mower. Even after months, he is still learning how to walk on his computer-assisted prosthetic where his left leg used to be. When he’s not walking on it, he will draw audiences of intrigued children when he rotates the prosthetic around and touches the heel of his shoe to his chin.
The rain is coming around nightfall, and the Schmitz property has to be ready. The suffocating humidity is setting in above the streams leading to Skiatook Lake. Miniature horses have to keep their feet dry, and that means preparation for when a hard Oklahoma rain storm moves through.
Looking up the hill, Leo sees Sharon, 67, already at work feeding the horses and shoveling the stalls in the barn. He used to walk up this hill. Now he takes the golf cart.
“This used to wear me out working up here,” Leo said. “Without a leg, it just wears me out a lot sooner.”
Until a few months ago, doctors couldn’t guarantee Leo would ever see the property he built again. He is trying to move forward from the crash — the one that killed four people and injured more than 40 others, the one that almost ended his life.
At his home in Skiatook, across the living room, there’s a shelf of cards carrying notes. Most of the cards from survivors and supporters aren’t opened yet, the details too raw and emotional for Leo to handle even months later. There are times he thinks about them and starts to cry.
Two cans of Life Savers candy sit on top of the shelf with a card from a girl named Hadley.
Leo Schmitz is the reason she’s alive.
Sharon spent three months in a hospital chair, in limbo between fitful sleep and anxiously awaiting news from the doctors watching over Leo.
On Oct. 24, 2015, Adacia Chambers, 25, reportedly sped past a barrier and through a crowd at the end of the Oklahoma State University homecoming parade. Police say Chambers’ Hyundai hit a parked Stillwater Police Department motorcycle before the intersection of Hall of Fame and Main. The motorcycle launched off the Hyundai’s bumper and into the crowd, reports said. The flying motorcycle flattened Leo, who was standing in the northwest corner of the intersection.
When the helicopter carrying Leo landed at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, doctors first needed to stabilize his brain. The impact to his head did significant damage.
For most of his stay, Leo had to be propped at a 35-degree angle to keep pressure down inside his bashed skull. Doctors could focus on his legs when his brain stabilized. When the motorcycle hit Leo, his legs took the brunt of the impact. That motorcycle had nearly hit a little girl, but instead, it hit him.
His right femur was snapped, and Leo’s left leg was dying, its arteries pinched, ripped and broken.
Doctors tried in a nine-hour surgery to replace an artery in Leo’s left leg a few days after the crash. At the halfway point, the surgeon came out of the operating room to give Sharon an update.
“I think we’ve got it. We’re about to put in the artery. But I think we’ve got it,” the surgeon said.
Four hours later, the surgeon returned. Sharon feared the worst when she saw his exhausted expression.
“I don’t know what happened or why, but his leg won’t accept the new artery,” the surgeon said. “It’s either Leo or the leg.”
Sharon had to make the call. If Leo made it through at all, it would be without his left leg.
“Let’s cut it off.”
The decisions came one after another, day after day. Every procedure carried a potentially fatal consequence. None of the doctors said Leo was in the clear, but none of them knew whether he would make it to sunrise the next day, or the next or the day after.
For weeks after the crash, Sharon got calls in the middle of the night. Once, the pressure rose in Leo’s brain. Doctors wanted to do an MRI to find the cause of the swelling. Then they wanted to paralyze her husband, knowing it could be permanent. Each time, Sharon said yes. She wanted Leo back.
After two months in a coma, Leo started to move and talk, but he did not wake up. Although he wasn’t conscious, his brain was trying to figure out what was wrong.
Leo doesn’t remember any of his initial conversations with Sharon, all of it a darkened blur from the shock and trauma to his head.
“Sharon, mhhm, Sharon,” Leo said, groaning to his wife in the chair next to his bed. “Come here, will you?”
“What can I get you, Leo?”
“There’s a flower shop just down the street from here,” Leo said, talking about a shop that didn’t exist. “Go on down there and get yourself a nice bouquet of flowers, and I bet they’ll have a pair of scissors, too.”
Sharon sighed and had to explain to Leo why she couldn’t go. His brain convinced him he was trapped. It was inventing ways to cut the restraints free.
Leo got mad. Claustrophobia drove his anxiety wild as he lay in the hospital bed. He yelled, fought and wailed in incoherent terror, trying to free himself. Leo’s brain was trapped in a broken body, and regardless of whether he liked it, the brain wanted out of that hospital.
“That (first) month there was like a horror story,” Sharon said. “He was mad, screaming, crying, kicking, but he doesn’t remember any of it.”
Leo doesn’t remember the month in limbo, but he remembers the moment he woke up.
Above him was the same bland section of ceiling tiles his comatose eyes had gazed upon for three months. Alone in a hospital room, Leo looked into a mirror and saw his face. He wasn’t wearing the new orange shirt he had bought for homecoming.
He was truly awake for the first time.
“I could see myself, but I didn’t think it was me because my face was saggy,” Leo said. “My muscles were like an old man flopping in the wind.
“Then I started talking to the Lord and had a nice conversation. I thanked him for whatever reason I’m here, thanked him for the people that take care of me.”
Leo had no energy and continued to drift in and out of consciousness. He neither knew where he was nor understood why his leg was gone.
Phantom pains tormented him, with cut nerve endings above his knee tricking his brain into believing the rest of his leg was still there. Even now Leo tries to focus his brain elsewhere when the pains return, hoping one day his brain will learn he has no left leg.
Sharon watched her husband come back. He began looking over his own body, trying to put the pieces together. His leg had been gone for weeks, but he didn’t entirely understand how or why. Leo vainly tried to move his right leg, still in pain and needing repair for a fracture above the knee. Then he moved what remained of his left leg. Leo would stare at his lower extremities, not understanding the flattened hospital bedsheets where his left leg would be, nor why his left toes were gone when they felt as if they were throbbing.
Sharon knew the time was coming. She had to explain the decision she made.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Sharon asked, trying to ease her husband into reality.
All Leo managed to do was nod. He didn’t remember anything after impact that Saturday in October.
“Your leg saved a little girl,” Sharon said.
In southwest Oklahoma, Hadley Wyatt, 7, is growing up. She scrambles up the ladder on the metal slide in her backyard and slides down over and over again, her blonde hair, black-rimmed glasses and bright orange bow barely hanging on.
The Wyatt family ranch is south of Lawton, more than two hours from Stillwater and three from Skiatook, where Leo lives. The back porch looks out to the empty horizon over the family’s fields while the front door looks on at the Wichita Mountains looming north of the city. Hadley’s parents, Sara and Adam, finished the house two months before the crash.
Hadley and her sister, Mia, 9, raise pigs for 4-H. Their two pigs are named Mason Rudolph and Barry Sanders. Although they don’t have a third one yet, it’s already named after OSU receiver James Washington.
Five generations of the Wyatt family have farmed these fields. The ranch is past where the worn, weathered and baked pavement gives way to dusty dirt roads. Every other fence line has a “Right to Farm” banner whipping in the gusting south winds while red-tailed hawks make tight circles overhead looking for mice and rabbits.
Hadley has a few small scars, but their visibility fades as she smiles at the sight of her 3-month-old puppy, Sunny, or the pigs outside.
A year ago she struggled to smile through the pain, her face scarred, stained and bloodied from the parade crash. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook helped her in that regard.
“They came to see me in the hospital,” Hadley said.
She holds the picture of her and Durant proudly, grinning through the scars down the left side of her face. Durant, Westbrook and members of the OSU football team who visited brought her smile back.
She and Leo don’t remember the impact, and Hadley doesn’t fully know the extent of what happened.
Hadley doesn’t talk much about her time in the hospital, whether it’s about seeing Leo or her own recovery. When she does, it’s barely above a whisper.
Monitors and machines beeped incessantly, each whirr, click and tone forecasting Leo’s future. His left leg was gone, and doctors were fighting to save the right one from the same fate.
A week after the crash, Leo had a visitor. Sharon met the Wyatt family in the lobby with a tough but battered girl who wanted to see Leo.
“He’s not really in a condition to talk,” Sharon said.
It didn’t matter to Hadley.
“I want to see Mr. Leo,” Hadley said.
Her wounds hadn’t healed yet, showing where the skin had scraped away on the asphalt. Hadley stood in front of Leo in the intersection. They had never met or talked. A picture on Leo’s phone shows Hadley and Mia standing in front of him in the foreground, only minutes before the crash.
Hadley’s parents and Sharon said they think Leo grabbed Hadley a split-second before the motorcycle leveled him. The impact nearly killed Leo, but Hadley’s only injuries were from hitting the asphalt. Leo’s body absorbed the bike’s impact, acting as a cushion between Hadley and the motorcycle’s weight.
First responders found them lying side by side, Leo in grave condition and Hadley unconscious with a head injury. The pair ended up at OU Medical Center. Hadley’s mother, Sara, said she doesn’t think her daughter would be alive without Leo.
“For what happened to him, she lived,” Sara said. “There’s no way she could have withstood that. There’s no possible way.
“It’s a miracle either of them lived.”
Under the hospital room’s dimmed lights, Hadley and her family walked inside. Her face scraped and badly bruised, Hadley approached the bed quietly.
She knew Leo couldn’t hear her, talk to her or feel her presence, but Hadley wanted to see the man who had saved her life. It might have been her only chance.
Hadley saw the wrapped and bandaged stub where Leo’s left leg used to be, the breathing tube protruding from his neck. The braces held Leo’s head and neck at 35 degrees, his damaged skull and brain carefully covered but exposed by most standards. She wasn’t scared.
“It was a special moment for her to see who saved her,” Sara said. “You worry about her seeing him like that. That’s not a state for a 6-year-old to see someone in.
“It was hard. … It was really hard for us to see him like that. This person that saved your child is fighting for his life.”
After Leo woke up, Hadley returned. Leo didn’t know who she was other than a girl with a few healing wounds. Hadley and Mia walked up to Leo’s bed with a card and two cans of Lifesavers candy.
The sisters saw him again on Christmas Day in the hospital. They talk on the phone often about the miniature horses and what’s going on at school or church.
Leo has talked with plenty of people since the crash, everyone wishing him a speedy and successful recovery. When he first talked to Hadley’s parents, Leo had something to say as he held back tears.
“I don’t mind recovering from the injuries I have,” Leo said, “because I was able to save lives and kept other people from being drastically injured or killed.
“Go ahead and be happy. It’s not easy going from where I was to where I am now, but I’m OK with it.”
Going back, looking forward
Now up at the barn, Leo grabs a couple of rakes and shovels for the job ahead. The rocks by the barn have to go and be replaced with rubber mats or dirty rainwater will collect and flow into the barn instead of down the hill.
Swinging a heavy iron sledge pole, Leo keeps his balance and thrusts the pole into the clay and rock. Once the sand rock is freed from the clay, he helps Sharon toss it into the back of their farm truck.
Damage from his breathing tube left substantial scar tissue, and now Leo’s raspy voice is a constant reminder when he tells the horses to get out of the way.
Normally, he uses the golf cart and its smaller buckets to haul the rock, but with the loads they’re working with today, it will take 10 trips in the golf cart. Loading the truck bed, Leo presses on as the sun gets higher. Leo doesn’t like the high steps in and out of the truck. It is much more difficult on his recovering body.
Although work outside is tougher, a few things remain the same through the pain and recovery. Sharon said Leo’s still a “big kid” who never lost his sense of humor.
“I’m not quite ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ yet,” Leo said. “But I’m getting there.”
Before the crash, Leo weighed 207 pounds. Now, he weighs only 150.
“I went on a crash diet,” Leo said. “I don’t really recommend it, though. It kind of hurts a little.”
After the rocks have been moved and horse manure collected and put in compost, Leo and Sharon head inside to cool off and get ready for lunch in Skiatook. Anywhere they go, the employees know Sharon and Leo.
The reminders of the crash linger in ways big and small, but they do not stop the harsh progression of time.
In Stillwater, gas station signs show discounts on beer and food. The “Stillwater Strong” signs that dominated the town in the days after the crash are gone.
The aftermath pops up in the headlines of newspapers on those gas station racks every now and then. Chambers is awaiting trial in early 2017.
Even at the Hastings store a few feet from where Chambers’ car finally stopped, time marches on. The signs and orange mementos are gone, and the store is closing after filing bankruptcy, another casualty of passing time.
After lunch, Leo sits back in his chair and tends to his dogs, T-bear and Benet. He puts the football game on TV and tries to lean back and relax before he has to shower and get ready for Saturday night church.
There are more than the physical injuries he has experienced. Leo thinks about others, the students and families who watched in horror as people, debris and car parts exploded into a blur of destruction. He thinks about those who can’t sleep at night, because he knows those painful, vivid images linger in their minds.
It’s why, on Saturday, Leo Schmitz plans to be back. Back to the homecoming parade, back to the intersection, back to where a Hyundai sped through the crowd, killed four and injured more than 40. He wants to show he’s OK and moving forward.
This year, Leo, Sharon and the Wyatts will go to Main Street again. And this time, Hadley said, she wants to see the whole parade.