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Family is everything: Near-tragedy brings Special Olympics athlete's family together


Ashley Schafer poses for a photo in the Kulhavi Events Center. Schafer is competing in three events during the Special Olympics Michigan State Summer Games May 30-June 1. 

Ashley Schafer is just like most other 29-year-olds. She loves movies, going to concerts and camping with her family. 

Ten years ago, she was studying nursing at Mid-Michigan Community College and participating in competitive cheerleading. 

When she was 19 years old, Ashley underwent a tonsillectomy. The procedure was routine and successful, at first. 

Six days after the operation, Ashley and her mom, Julie, were spending time with family friends. Suddenly, Ashley told her mom she couldn't breathe. Then she began convulsing. 

After arriving at the local hospital, she went into cardiac arrest. She was flown from Mount Pleasant to Saginaw for emergency treatment.

Ashley was dead for 47 minutes. 

Doctors struggled to revive her, until they came up with one final idea to save Ashley. 

They determined that she had blood clots in her lungs, which joined together in the center and cut off her breathing.They attempted to use a clot-busting drug to allow her to breathe. It worked, but caused severe complications. 

The clot buster caused hemorrhaging in her brain. She was in a coma for eight weeks, with no brain activity for the first two. 

On April 10, 2009, which was Good Friday, the Schafers watched their oldest daughter wake up for the first time in eight weeks. When she did, she could only see out of the corner of her left eye and the equivalent of a pinhole out of her right. She also had no memory. She had to relearn everything. 

She was on a "long road" to recovery, which lasted roughly 10 months and included rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids and speech therapy at Riversbend in Bay City. In 2012, Ashley found a new normal with Special Olympics Michigan.

"I have a blast. I enjoy every minute of it," Ashley said. "(I love) to see the opening ceremony and all of the different colored shirts, everybody's theme and the sea of people." 

Ashley competes in the tennis ball toss and the 25- and 50-meter walks. 

The Schafer family works as a team to get Ashley over the finish line in the walking events. Their old method in the 10-meter walk was to have Ashley's younger sister, Katelyn, walk backward in front of her and give directions to keep Ashley in her lane. Ashley wore a watch on her left hand, so when Katelyn said "watch" she went left, and when Katelyn said "no watch," she went right. 

This year, Special Olympics received a complaint, saying that Ashley should not be able to compete in the assisted walks, which she has competed in since she started. She switched to the longer races, and and her family had to come up with a new method to help her. At the summer games this year, they will try using a rope with Julie at the starting line and Katelyn at the finish line. 

Julie said their job is paramount to keep Ashley in the competition.

"A track lane is two and a half feet wide, and you have to stay in those white lines or you're disqualified," Julie said. "We're at either end holding the rope trying to keep her in those white lines. We're going to try it. It'll be an adventure." 

All of Ashley's events take place on the basketball courts in the Student Activity Center on May 31. The 25-meter walk is scheduled for 9:50 a.m., the 50-meter walk is at 10:50 a.m. and the tennis ball throw is at 2:15 p.m. 

A letter to Dan Enos

Each year, the Central Michigan football and cheer teams gather at Kelly/Shorts Stadium for the Summer Games Opening Ceremony. They cheer on the Special Olympians and provide encouragement during the weekend. 

"It boosts our confidence," Ashley said. "Here are these college athletes, rooting us on. That's really cool."

Courtesy Photo | Ashley Schafer

Ashley Schafer with former CMU running back Anthony Garland (left) and tight end Jarrett Fleming (right) at the 2012 Special Olympics Opening Ceremony at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

After Ashley's first Summer Games in 2012, Julie was touched by the football team's gesture. She wrote a letter to former head coach Dan Enos explaining how grateful she was that his team cheered on the same people that cheer for his team in the fall. 

Enos gave a copy of the letter to each player to hang up in their locker to serve as a reminder of the impact they can have as collegiate athletes. 

"I ran into a player the following year that was still here," she said. "I said it was good to see him back, he asked 'you wrote that letter?' and I said yes. It was so heart-warming to see young people act like they wanted to be there." 

Julie joked that the team's attitude toward the Games were indicative of its season ahead. The 2012 team, that received the letters from Julie, went 7-6 with a win in the Little Caesar's Bowl.

'Both my parents are pretty awesome'

With what has transpired in the last 10 years for the Schafers, there was a new sense of closeness created within their family. 

The Schafer family goes to the movies, the bar and concerts. Their favorite is the Faster Horses Festival at Michigan International Speedway. 

"We're very close; a lot closer than we were," Julie said. "We do a lot together." 

Ashley said that both of her parents, Julie and her dad Russell, took on the role of super-parent to take care of her when she needed them most.

"With everything that we had to go through, they were both there," Ashley said. "They were both there, 24/7 for the first couple of weeks and finally said, 'we have to take turns.' Someone was there everyday, if it wasn't my mom, it was my dad."

Much of the closeness they have as a family came from a near-tragedy, but they have grown into one cohesive unit. 

"I know I couldn't do half the stuff I do now if it weren't for my mom, dad and sister," Ashley said.