In spring 2011, UW-Madison researcher Craig Schuff had a lot going for him — not the least of which was his work in the College of Engineering where he was on the verge of perfecting a much-anticipated device that can be used to detect explosives and even nuclear material in suspicious packages.
Today, after an accident in Lake Monona, Schuff is paralyzed from the neck down.
The incident that robbed him of a normally functioning body could have permanently derailed Schuff, or anyone, from the pursuit of a normal life and of long-held dreams.
But Schuff’s friends and colleagues from engineering gathered recently to share a different story — that of a young man who has fashioned a new life from tragedy. In a few months, if all goes as planned, Schuff will defend his thesis and unveil the invention that has grown from an imagination undimmed by pain and paralysis.
Schuff’s life took its tragic turn one night in May 2011 on Lake Monona when he was relaxing with friends. In a riveting blog about his experiences, called "Broken Cord," he tells of leaving a campfire on a spring night, wandering to the end of a dock and, as he had done many times, diving into the water.
"As I broke the surface of the water, my past life was stripped away. I felt a sharp shock to my neck, followed by no pain at all. In times of extreme stress our brains are capable of astonishing things. Under the water, in a place where I should have seen nothing at all, I saw myself. In my vision I floated face down below the surface, pale skin illuminated by the moonlight, my hair floating freely. My mind churned ... gotta swim up ... my arms will not move, my legs will not move ... this is it ... I am going to die..."
Today, Schuff is motoring through ice and snow in his wheelchair, working in his campus office and looking forward to defending his thesis. He lives a much different life, but the invention that was the focus of his days before the accident and which will earn him his Ph.D. remains his focus. Those who know and work with him marvel at his grit and humor.
"I would not have thought he would have been able to power through this," said Gerald Kulcinski, associate dean for research in the Department of Engineering Physics. "But he has. He has a very strong will to succeed."
And a sense of humor.
"A friend of mine asked me if everything was all right ‘up there.’ " Schuff said. "I replied, ‘there is no more damage up there than there was before.’ "
As Schuff recalls in his blog, in the days after the accident, it seemed everybody assumed he would simply cease his academic pursuits and return to his family’s home in Tennessee. He remembers a discussion after he was moved out of intensive care.
"It was assumed that I would be moving back home to do, well ... nothing," he said. "Apparently I did not take it very well. It was all too much. It is one thing to face adversity in the pursuit of a fulfilling life. It is quite another to be denied that pursuit entirely."
Seeing Schuff’s determination, colleagues in his department swung into motion, Kulcinski said.
"He never really lost his desire to finish his Ph.D.," Kulcinski said. "That was still his goal, though most people would have given up."
Kulcinski and others in the department started searching for resources, thinking about Schuff’s mechanical needs (it helped to be surrounded by a bunch of engineers).
A donor was found to fund a full-time research assistant position that included important benefits.
Schuff’s wheelchair was outfitted with infrared devices to help open doors to his office and elsewhere. Voice recognition technology has allowed him to get ideas onto the computer. A freshman was hired to be Schuff’s hands in the laboratory.
"We’re on a steep learning curve here," said Kulcinski of the department’s efforts. "We’re sort of plowing new ground with some of this."
Aaron McEvoy, a third-year engineering student in Schuff’s group who has been involved in the efforts, said he and others see their work on behalf of Schuff as a way not only to help their friend but to continue making his unique and considerable talents available to the department.
"I’m really looking forward to seeing all his work come together," said McEvoy of Schuff’s project. "We want to see him huddled with students explaining how his new machine works."
That machine would be an inertial electrostatic confinement device, which uses fusion to generate neutrons. Those neutrons are then used to scan packages and detect clandestine materials such as smuggled explosives and nuclear materials.
Despite the threat they pose, those materials remain difficult to detect, said Richard Bonomo, a fellow fusion researcher.
The challenge, Schuff explained, has been building a device that produces enough neutrons to be effective at what Schuff calls "cargo interrogation."
Even as he has struggled outwardly to adjust to his new life, Schuff said, he has worked at the science in his mind, solving problems and trying out new ideas.
He’s confident he’ll be ready to defend his project in a year or so.
He lived such an intense internal life even before his accident, Schuff said, and now, living through the accident and the subsequent pain and the knowledge that he won’t walk again has required as much intellectual capital as his science.
But through that effort, he said, he has found himself slowly coming to terms with a life much different from the one he had expected.
"The reality of it strikes me every day," he wrote, "the frailty of my existence; the utter dependence on other people for basic survival; the hours and hours burned every day for the sake of the few that are left over; lost opportunities; lost love and lost passion; lost windows, roads, and channels; lost wind and lost waves; lost touch.
"What I was and what I did means something, but I cannot drag what is past into the present. I can only be who I am in this moment, in this light."