In our Zero Fatalities campaign, we often focus on the lives lost due to drunk drivers. But another aspect of the issue that doesn’t grab headlines is how victims of drunk drivers who sustain life-altering injuries respond to their circumstances over time. Some become bitter and disconnected, others hire lawyers and fight for retribution. Then there’s Heather Hurd-Schneider.
In 1993, Heather Hurd was like many high school seniors. She was trying to decide if she wanted to play golf in college, as she had done so well at Ida Grove High School, or if another option might be better.
Life was great that February as she celebrated Valentine’s Day with her boyfriend who attended Morningside College in Sioux City. “I remember it was about midnight and we were getting ready to go back to Ida Grove from Sioux City,” said Hurd-Schneider. “I got in the car and fastened my seat belt. My boyfriend joked with me that I didn’t trust his driving. I told him that it was the other drivers that worried me. He buckled up, too. That wasn’t something he always did, but it probably saved his life that night.”
She continued, “I have been told we were coming over the crest of a hill on U.S. 20 near Correctionville when a car hit us head-on. Since I was asleep, I didn’t see it coming. Apparently, once that car hit us, we were hit again by another vehicle. From what I understand, that’s when most of my injuries happened.”
Hurd-Schneider says she has fuzzy memories of the scene after the crash. “I really just remember bits and pieces,” she said. “Although they told me I was talking to the pilots all the way to the hospital when they airlifted me to Sioux City.”
After eight hours of surgery for a spinal cord injury, doctors gave Hurd-Schneider’s mother her prognosis. They told her, “Your daughter will never the be same again.”
“Apparently the girl that hit us head on had been at a wedding reception and had too much to drink,” said Hurd-Schneider. “I never heard much about an investigation and as far as I know, she was never charged. I don’t really know why. I guess the laws were just different 25 years ago. I’ve heard over the years that people at the reception knew she was drunk, but didn’t stop her from driving. She suffered a head injury in the crash, but she survived.”
As for Hurd-Schneider, the long road to recovery moved from Sioux City to Craig Hospital, a rehabilitation center in Englewood, Colo., near Denver. “At the time, I didn’t know anything about spinal cord injuries, but both my mom and I learned a lot. Neither of us liked science, but there were a lot of things we needed to know. Craig was pretty overwhelming. There was a floor for people like me with spinal cord injuries and another section for people with traumatic brain injuries.”
Hurd-Schneider said being so young was beneficial to her recovery. “I saw so many of the older people at Craig who seemed angry, but I was determined to make the best of the situation,” she said. “I didn’t want to be angry or bitter. I still had the same dreams for my life. I was going to have to approach them differently, but I wasn’t going to give up on them.”
One motivation for Hurd-Schneider was to be back in Ida Grove for her high school graduation in May. With only 60 kids in her graduating class, most of whom she had been in school with since kindergarten, graduation was a milestone she didn’t want to miss. “When I found out I wasn’t going to make it home in time, the next step was to find a way to be connected,” she said.
Back in 1993, you couldn’t just FaceTime to be part of the festivities. “At the time, MCI, a telecommunications company, found a way to do a video link from the hospital to my high school,” said Hurd-Schneider. “It was kind of a big deal in Denver since this type of technology was so new. There were TV stations at Craig and they did stories about it. I cried through most of it, but I was so happy to be able to take part in the ceremony.”
“I did really well at Craig. My mom stayed in Colorado with me the whole time. My parents were divorced, but my dad came out to see me every weekend and I have family in the Denver area, so I never felt lonely. My boyfriend came out sometimes. He had suffered a brain bruise and some pretty significant internal injuries in the crash, but was recovering.”
By June 1993, Hurd-Schneider was ready to come back to Iowa. She said, “I feel so blessed to have such a supportive family and group of friends. They all gave up so much for me. Our house had lots of stairs, so my mom sold it and bought a house that she had equipped with a ramp and other things I would need to get around. I went straight to the new house, which was hard. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my old house or my old room.”
In addition to the emotional difficulties, getting around small town Iowa in a wheel chair proved to be trickier than Hurd-Schneider anticipated. “There weren’t ramps on the curbs so I would have to go down driveways and into the street a lot of times. I couldn’t get into many of the stores in town,” she said. “People were generally nice, but they stared at me since a girl in a wheelchair wasn’t something they were used to seeing. My boyfriend broke up with me in July. That was a little rough.”
But, determined to continue her education, Hurd-Schneider enrolled in Iowa State University’s social work program in January 1994. She said, “My older sister was in her last year at ISU. She was a music major and she didn’t have a set class schedule so she was able to go with me to all my classes.”
The sisters lived in a house on Welch Avenue, a few blocks from campus. Their apartment was in the front of the house and a second apartment in the back housed three young, male engineering students. One of the young men, Jason Schneider, became a particularly good friend. “It was winter and people weren’t doing a very good job of shoveling their sidewalks so I could get to class. Jason took a shovel and cleared a path several blocks long just for me,” she said.
Not long after, the couple were married. Jason graduated but ISU had dissolved the social work program. The couple moved to Waterloo where he got a job and she finished her degree at the University of Northern Iowa.
Time passed quickly, as it tends to do. The couple had three kids, two boys and a girl, and Hurd-Schneider now finds herself busy leading her sons’ 4-H Club, her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop, running the kids to various activities in a specially equipped van, and working part time at her church.
“Nothing about this injury is cheap,” she said, “So many things aren’t covered by insurance. I’ve been blessed to have resources to get the help I need.”
But there is one thing Hurd-Schneider would like everyone to hear. “Handicapped parking is a real issue for me,” she said. “I have a van that has a ramp on the side. So many people ignore or crowd the yellow lines for van-accessible parking spaces. Sometimes I can pull into a spot just fine, but when I come back out, someone has blocked the area for my ramp and I’m just stuck. Typically, I have to go back into the store and have the manager make an announcement."
Hurd-Schneider is working in her community to educate people about handicapped parking, especially van-accessible spots. Her advice for anyone parking next to a van-accessible parking spot is to situate your vehicle as far away from the yellow striped area to give the handicapped driver enough space.
While people parking too closely to handicapped spaces in lots is an irritation in her life, Hurd-Schneider said, “I hear about so many people who get injured and give up on life. But I never wanted to be that way. No matter what, there’s always so much more out there, you just have to find it.”