Michael Schwarz shares his traumatic brain injury story with students

SPRINGFEILD, Vt. – Ask any student at Union Street School who Michael Schwarz is and the response you’ll receive is fit for a celebrity sighting. In 2009, at the age of 22, Michael a senior at UVM and local was competing at the World Quarter Pipe Championship in Southern Vermont. The unthinkable happened when Michael “caught his edge” at the top of the pipe hitting his head twice on his fall.

Michael says, “I immediately stood up and said that I was okay.”

Fran, Michael’s dad and Michael holding his helmet he was wearing at time of accident. Photo provided

As soon as the words were out, Michael collapsed. His brain was filling with blood, three hours later and in a coma he arrived at DHMC. His father, Fran (first grade teacher at Park Street School in Springfield) said, “the doctor told me I needed to quickly see Michael, he was in bad shape and they needed to operate immediately.” Michael suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Michael’s brain had to reboot and relearn how to; breathe on its own, eat, walk, talk, see, everything we take for granted.

Union Street’s school counselor, Jan Rounds has focused on teaching the student body about the brain; the stem our primal urge to survive, the limbic area where we have our capacity to have feelings for others, the amygdala our “fight or flight” and the thinking/conductor area of our brain, the prefrontal cortex.  Asking Michael to share his story in the 13 classrooms made the learning experience of the brain personal.

Michael slowly stands from his wheelchair, holding onto his walker as all 6 foot 4 inches of him towers in the classroom doorway. Kim, his healthcare worker walks behind him. The students watch and wait patiently as Michael makes his way to the front of the classroom. Once there, Michael stiffly folds his long limbs back into his wheelchair. Michael’s voice strains out the words,

“I’m Michael. How are you feeling today?”

  As he tells his story, Michael holds the helmet he wore the day of his TBI accident and says, “I wouldn’t be here, if I didn’t wear my helmet.” Michael hugs his helmet saying, ”I love helmets.” The students spontaneously break out in applause.

5th grader’s, Gavin and Ari sitting on floor listening to Michael. Photo provided

High Five Foundation, a non-profit organization, sponsors Michael in spreading safety by reminding his listeners to wear helmets to protect their brain. Michael hands out swag in the form of high five stickers, headbands, water bottles, and beanies to the students during the Q&A at the end of his presentation. A fifth grader, Spencer raises his hand and asks Michael,

“Are you famous?”

Michael shows his sense of humor by responding with raised eyebrows, the students erupt in laughter. Shortly after Michael’s accident, searching for his purpose, he started a sock company out of his parents home. Each sock template is Michael’s own personal design. Go to elschwarez.com to see Michael’s sock options.

Fourth grader, Kylie makes sure the day that Michael visits her classroom, she’s wearing her jacket with the High Five Foundation logo on it. Kylie has her own story to share, her dad, Larry Nadeau was in a motorcycle accident 20 years ago as a result he is paralyzed from the waist down. Kylie says that the high Five Foundation sponsors her dad too. She says the Foundation had her father “bike with them” and talk to an ATV local accident victim. Kylie says,

“My dad helps me practice for my sports. He plays goalie when I practice soccer.”

Michael tells class after class, “Humor is the best medicine.” Michael has said his true purpose, is the connections, interactions and joy he shares at the schools he visits.

Kim and Michael giving high fives to the students as they are on their way to lunch. Photo provided

Michael’s father, Fran tells some of the students that on days when Michael gets stuck in sad thoughts, what pulls him out of it are the cards that folks have sent him over the years. Union Street School has started a “box-of-cards” for Michael. The box is wrapped in bright orange minion paper and keeps getting filled with cards of thanks, jokes, memories and drawings.

Please send cards to Michael Schwarz at PO Box 611, Chester, VT 05143.

Photo with the whole class is Ms. Rounds’ fourth graders. Photo provided

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