As a homicide detective for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Chris Schaefer has seen his fair share of the grisly side of society.
The 46-year-old Colorado native is keenly aware of how intense life can get, but when he lost his left leg to a severe infection after several knee replacements, he felt like he was thrown directly into hell.
“I don’t think I’m the type of guy who would ever kill himself, but there is nothing worse than praying to God that you just don’t wake up in the morning,” Schaefer said.
Long gone were the days of skiing and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks, or so he thought.
Lucky for Schaefer, he found Dallas-based Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), where severely wounded veterans and civilians alike go to work side-by-side to retrain their bodies and brains as one unified tribe. He went for the sweat, working as hard as any NFL pro or Olympic medalist, but he stayed for what can’t be mopped up — a feeling of belonging.
In the process, Schaefer learned that regaining strength and balance isn’t a lightning bolt from the sky, but a build-up of daily habits that will one day get him back on his beloved alpine trails.
Becoming a Police Officer
Schaefer always knew he wanted to be a police officer. Growing up, his father was a coroner and his mother was an emergency room nurse. If his dad got a call about a body in the middle of the night and his mom was working, Schaefer would go with his dad.
“The police officers would take care of me when my dad was picking up bodies,” Schaefer said. “I don’t know what it was. I just wanted to be a cop, too.”
His dad would be embalming bodies, and Schaefer would be in the next room playing with blocks. The way he saw it, he was no different from the kid down the street whose father crunched numbers as an accountant.
Before joining the force, Schaefer played college baseball, first for a junior college in Colorado and then at the University of Northern Colorado.
However, all those years as a catcher tore up his knee. It was so bad that he had his first knee replacement at 34 years old. By the time he was 43, he had been through four of them.
“One time, I was working and I fell through a burned up house. When I landed, I snapped the replacement knee I had in there,” Schaefer said. “So, I had to go get another replacement, and that got infected about a year later since I had so much trauma in there.”
His knee was “infected from the inside out,” and doctors told him they had no choice but to amputate.
Schaefer’s dark times ensued immediately after he had his leg removed.
“Mentally, I didn’t feel whole. I felt like being out in public, people would stare at me,” he said. “I just didn’t feel right.”
He tried to resume a “normal life,” even returning to the gym a month after his amputation.
“Physically, I’ve always been a guy who has gone to the gym every morning,” he said. “I went back there for a while, but then my doctor forbid me from going because I was hurting myself.”
That left him feeling even more irritable and down. Then his wife, Dawn, found Adaptive Training Foundation, the place to go if you’re an adaptive athlete looking for something far beyond traditional rehabilitation programs.
“She just showed it to me one night online. She was searching and trying to find some place for me to go because I was struggling,” he said. “I decided I’ve got to at least attempt to get into ATF.”
He filled out an application, and talked to ATF co-founder and former NFL linebacker David Vobora on the phone. The conversation alone gave Schaefer a jolt of energy and he hopped on a flight to visit.
“They accepted me right then and there,” he said.
Schaefer began ATF’s nine-week program in January and began slamming large tires with sledge hammers and slinging kettlebells. More than that, he gained a bevvy of new friends who understood what he was going through .
“ATF changed my whole outlook on everything. Before I lost my leg, I didn’t know anyone who had lost a limb,” he said. “You get in those spots where you think, I must have done something really bad to deserve this. But, having these 20-year-old kids who are riding in a Humvee one day and then wake up a week later missing limbs, it really puts it into perspective. Being around those people and seeing how they do things differently, it got me back.”
“There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do for David,” he added “I would take a bullet for him, I would give him a kidney, I would do anything in the world for that man or anyone in that class.”
Back on the Mountain
After the nine weeks were up, Schaefer returned to Colorado with a heavy heart.
“I obviously missed my family incredibly, but I didn’t want to leave ATF,” he said. “I wanted to pick my family up and move them out to Dallas.”
Despite having to return home, Schaefer reunited with his ATF tribe in early April for “Military to the Mountains,” put on by the High Fives Foundation. The program brings 22 disabled veterans, a large handful from ATF, to Squaw Valley for a few days of skiing. Schaefer was the only non-military member invited.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be accepted by those guys or not,” Schaefer said. “And I was. From day one, they would tell me, ‘You do the same thing. You just do it here while we did it overseas.’ It was more than I expected.”
He snowboarded and skied on one leg for the first time. It was a great step toward getting back to what he ultimately wants to do.
“You lose a leg, and it’s not like you can just put on a prosthetic leg and go walk 10 miles or ski down a mountain,” he said. “There’s pain involved and that’s what I’m trying to get over now to get back to a normal active life. My wife and two sons, they stopped skiing and hiking together because of me. They didn’t want me to feel bad, so I felt horrible I couldn’t do it, but I felt even worse that my family wasn’t doing it.”
That’s the thing. There’s no right or wrong way to handle losing a limb. Each person’s experience is unique. But, the one piece of advice Schaefer can offer for those going through something similar?
“I know there are these support groups, but I wasn’t going to go sit in these groups and bitch about my situation or anything like that,” he said. “But, once I got to Texas and met all those people who were in a similar situation, it just became everything. If I could have gotten to know people right away that were in my situation, I don’t think I would have struggled as much. If I’m having a bad day, I can tell people about it now. It makes a difference to know people who are in your shoes.”
And along with tire flips, that’s some powerful medicine right there.