Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman reflects on life a year after sustaining spinal cord injury

by Linda Hubbard on May 12, 2014

Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman’s life changed in a split second when he fell off a ladder the day before Mother’s Day a year ago, sustaining spinal cord injuries that left him in a wheelchair. Following six months of recovery and rehab, he returned to work last January. We recently stopped by the district’s administration building to get his thoughts one year later.

InMenlo: How has your perspective changed?

Chief: I’m on the consequences side now. [Before my injury], I had empathy for people with disabilities but never really appreciated how difficult things are. I’m more compassionate now that I can see what’s behind the curtain.

InMenlo: Can you cite an example?

Chief: For one, the challenges of navigation. A friend of mine took me to a Sharks game last month and the handicapped parking is on the right and the ramp is on the left. And the elevator was not close to either. Getting into the stadium was hard and getting out was crazy. When you’re low to the ground, people don’t see you.

InMenlo: Was there one person who made a difference in getting you to where you are today?

Chief: I have to give credit to the whole staff at Valley Medical Center, from the physician who put me back together — and who coincidentally lives near me — to the nursing staff and all the people in the spinal rehab unit.

That unit is unique as they just deal with spinal cord injuries. They made a huge impact on me. They showed me what I was capable of.

I wouldn’t have gotten here without my family, friends and co-workers who encouraged me all along the way. The Fire Board took the biggest chance in bringing me back, but after three months of being at work everyone seems to be seeing that despite my level of injury, my mind is sharp, my recall is as good as ever, and my heart is in making things better one day at a time.

InMenlo: What options are you looking at to further your rehabilitation?

Chief: I’m seeing a chiropractor and looking at how I might benefit from enrolling at Project Walk in Fremont. My goal is to walk again. I realize that remains elusive, but it doesn’t mean you don’t try. My spinal injury is classified as incomplete, so there is some hope.

I already achieved my first goal, which was coming back to work. It’s still tough for me to not come up the stairs —taking two at a time like I used to do — and instead take the elevator.

We redid this building when we bought it and had to made it ADA compliant. I had no idea that I would one day benefit.

InMenlo: Do you think about retiring?

Chief: I’m the longest standing Chief since George Carter, who served from 1955 to 1972. I think long-tenured Chiefs add stability. Every time a Chief changes, the whole tempo of the organization changes.

I’m just happy to be here, meaning just alive and very grateful to be back at work doing something I care very deeply about and making what I think is a positive impact on the organization and community.

As I go out into the community it’s always nice when people stop to say hello, share a personal story of their own, or some one else’s struggle or just thank me for coming back. I get a lot of “it’s good to see you” comments and I return that in kind by saying “it’s good to just be seen”!

So, I’m not certain when I’ll retire. I do know what I want my retirement photo to be — the picture of me in second grade at Bethany Lutheran School just after an oak tree fell and we had to evacuate.

Photo by Scott R. Kline


Liz May 13, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Great article. It’s good to read about the Chief. The true heroes are those that keep on despite the pain and the odds.

KC Anderson September 10, 2014 at 2:09 pm

It was great to hear about the Chief, his attitude is something we all need handicapped or not.
My son Ryan became severely handicapped at age 15 due to a neurological illness and is now 25 years old. Like the Fire Chief he deals head on with his illness and making things better for himself and those around him everyday of his life.

Barbara Britton October 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Happy to hear you are back to work. Very inspired by your story Harold. Last time I saw you was at Mark and Jayne Websters wedding years ago when you were a young firefighter. Keep up the good work !
Barbara Britton

Peter March 30, 2015 at 8:23 pm

This guy is an example to so many people: let’s not ever forget what firefighters do for us – just like the police! Every day again, these heroes risk their life without the general public even thanking them.

Harold, keep up the spirits and the good work: you’re one of a kind!

Alan Garretson May 13, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Chief Schapelhouman is a great guy and a natural leader. He is very personable, approachable, and good to work with. Its great to see him back at work! I hope he continues on as Chief for many more years.

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