If you live a few minutes or 100 years, you have a story because your presence changed lives and the world in ways you might never know.
I met Dean Schaumburg, 43, early one morning while walking down main street in Vernonia, Oregon. Speeding along in his battery-powered wheelchair waving at folks, Dean stopped and said hello to those he encountered before disappearing up the street.
Struck by his joyful spirit, I asked folks at a local business if they knew who he was.
“That’s Dean,” someone offered. “He’s a great guy.”
Another said he was a logger, injured when a tree fell on him. They even told me the street he lived on.
I knocked on Dean’s door and told him I wanted to interview him. He graciously invited me in and introduced me to his family: wife, Mandi, and now 8-year-old daughter, Shelbi.
It turns out Dean is somewhat of a local celebrity after surviving a logging accident that nearly claimed his life when an 80-foot Douglas fir fell on him in 2007.
On this chilly morning, I had watched Dean wave at several folks as they passed. He seemed to know everybody in town.
“I used to know a lot more people,” he says. “When I was 16, if you didn’t wave, they would cut your arms off. If you didn’t know people, your parents did.”
Dean never played sports in high school because he spent too much time working.
“I went to school during the day and worked at the mill at night,” he says. “My dad had his own logging company. I started packing choker bells [a tool used in hauling logs] around my house at the age of 3.”
After graduating high school in 2005, Dean logged and set chokers, then spent two summers fishing on a salmon boat
The accident happened after that near the elk refuge in Jewell, halfway between Vernonia and Seaside.
“I was teaching someone to fall trees, and they started cutting a tree while I was cutting,” Dean says with slow, deliberate, clearly labored speech. “When mine hit the ground, it shook the ground, and the other tree broke off backwards and got me. I didn’t lose consciousness until they lifted me in a Life Flight.”
Due to heavy fog, Dean was moved by ambulance to an awaiting helicopter, then transported to the hospital at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
“I was in and out of there so many times for so long,” he says with a groan. “The first six months for me, my memory is gone, which is good because there was so much pain.”
Dean suffered spinal fractures, broken ribs, a shattered ankle and a crushed lung. His L4 and L5 vertebrae and spine are fused
“Basically, the only thing working was my heart,” Dean says. “I had no vision and no speech. It all had to come back gradually. They had me in a chemically induced coma. I had five major strokes in the coma. I had to learn everything over. Everything.”
While in the hospital, a flood destroyed the rental home where he and his then-wife lived with their 13-month-old son. The couple divorced a few years later. Dean says he hasn’t seen his now 16-year-old son in five years.
His current wife, Mandi, was the nurse assigned to his case.
“It was 2 in the morning, and my boss said, ‘Can you take this case?’” Mandi says. “I really didn’t want to do it.”
She says her boss talked her into it.
“We were nurse, patient, then friends for a while,” Dean says. “It eventually evolved.”
The two married a few years later.
“It would be real easy to give up and be a jerk,” Dean says. “But nobody wants to hang around a jerk, including me. I can be the biggest jerk or the nicest guy in the world. It can go either way.”
Mandi raises her brows as if in agreement.
“She pleads the Fifth,” Dean says with a laugh. “I have been not so positive, and I just don’t like the way it makes me feel or the way it makes other people feel.”
He loves deer and elk hunting but most values spending time with family. His dad has died, but his mother is still alive. He also has a brother and sister he sees frequently, as well as uncles and cousins.
After Dean’s story was published in December 2007 in The Oregonian—the state’s largest newspaper—the community lined up to help.
Civic leaders, contractors and subcontractors offered their services. Within a few hours of people seeing the story, more than $100,000 was raised.
Dean’s current house and the lot it is situated on were donated, mostly by people in Vernonia.
“I don’t think I could stay positive without them,” he says of his neighbors. “They have no idea how much they help me. With my situation, there are a lot of communities that would say they helped, but this one actually did. They give love. They built the house. They gave donations for me. They help me so much.”
Dean’s life is an example of what goes around coming around.
“I always tried to help,” Dean says of his earlier years. “I could dig ditches, cut trees and cut firewood. It was just the way of small-town life. You help your neighbor. I didn’t do it for payback, but it really came back tenfold to me.
“I honestly thought there was no good left in the world; then I got hurt. I was shocked at the outpouring of support I got. Not just Vernonia, but almost the whole world.”