Chad Fuller used to stroll through the halls of the David City Public Schools’ middle school and high school.
Now the former vice principal navigates his house in a wheelchair. And being paralyzed from the chest down, the 44-year-old operates the power chair with his head.
He’s still recovering from an accident in July 2017 in which his neck was broken. Now, a year later, Fuller’s still trying to build strength.
“I’m taking it day by day, trying to get stronger and better,” Fuller said.
Last summer, Fuller joined family and friends in St. Paul, Nebraska, for a get-together.
Partygoers slid down a large Slip ‘N Slide to splash into Lake of the Woods. Fuller remembers going down headfirst. Right before he went into the water, he decided to dive in.
“I dropped my head and that was a mistake,” Fuller said.
He isn’t sure what exactly happened, but he suspects that he hit a sandbar.
Fuller’s brother, Rusty, pulled him from the water. Rusty and Mack, Fuller’s oldest son, performed CPR.
The next day, Fuller woke up at the St. Francis hospital in Grand Island. He was on a ventilator and wore a neck brace. His wife, Tami, explained that he’d broken his neck.
“Of course I was frustrated. I was always an active person,” Fuller said. “I just didn’t know what the next steps were going to be.”
He spent about a week at the Grand Island hospital before being flown to the Nebraska Medical Center to manage an infection in his lungs. After the infection cleared, Fuller went to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln.
“I had to learn a new normal of how I was going to get on with my life,” he said.
Tami Fuller said doctors told her that it was “going to be a long haul.”
During the rehab process, his inner athlete and coach shined through, she said.
“That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. He kept pushing and kept pushing,” his wife said.
When Fuller first arrived at Madonna, he was still on a ventilator. He hadn’t been out of bed and he couldn’t move anything below his neck, said Kristi Rocole, inpatient physical therapist there.
Fuller’s first goal was to ditch the ventilator and learn to breathe on his own. It also meant he’d have to learn to talk again.
Much of his time was spent learning to drive his wheelchair using his head. It took time to get the hang of the system — leaning his head one way to go right and another to go left — but he also had to strengthen his still-healing neck.
Therapy — physical, occupational and speech — was like a full-time job.
“I think, for every patient we work with, it was kind of hard to swallow. He had been so independent and active. But I cannot remember a time that I heard Chad complain,” Rocole said.
Fuller is still learning how to ask for help. He has to rely on his family, including his wife and two sons, ages 20 and 11, for help. He still needs help eating and getting dressed.
Tami Fuller said her husband’s drive and passion will keep him moving forward.
“I know him well enough to know that if he sets his mind to something, he’s going to do it,” his wife said. “It may not be as fast as he wants, but he will get there.”
Before the accident, being active was all Fuller knew. He wasn’t one to sit around.
He ran and lifted weights. He coached wrestling, football and track in Syracuse, where he worked before he went to David City. Several of his former athletes and students reached out to him after the accident. The support — from them and other community members — was overwhelming.
“I was always trying to motivate them to do their best work. When they would come visit or message me, there was a consistent message of ‘You were always driving us to do our best, and now we’re driving you,’ ” Fuller said.
Fuller recently wrapped up an outpatient therapy program at Madonna and is back home. He regained some movement in his left hand and leg, although it isn’t functional.
While Fuller was at Madonna, the family’s house in David City underwent renovations to the bathroom, bedroom, deck and garage to accommodate his wheelchair.
Fuller was unable to go back to work. Now he’s in vocational rehab, trying to find out what type of job he can do.
He can answer the phone, send emails and use the Internet via Bluetooth.
“If you focus on what you can’t do, it’s too easy to get down on yourself,” he said. “You focus on the things you can do with the hope that other things will go along.”