In the hours after experienced skier Matt Schuelke landed a jump headfirst on a rock -- cracking his skull and driving bone into his brain -- his parents stood by helplessly as their son lay in a coma.
Surgery that cold evening in February 2008 had gone well, but no one knew whether the Fremd High School junior's brain would swell, or what impairments the injury would leave.
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Matt SchuelkeAge: 22
Hometown: I grew up in Hoffman Estates but was actually born in Brussels, Belgium, where I spent the first few months of my life
School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Who inspires you? Christian men in my life (father, mentors, etc.) who love the Lord and their families well, while maintaining a career
What's on your iPod? I have actually never owned an iPod and primarily listen to Pandora now, but my current favorite band is Mumford & Sons
What book are you reading? I am simultaneously reading "Things I Wish I'd Known Before We Got Married" by Gary Chapman and "The House of Seven Gables" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The three words that best describe you? Christ-follower, passionate, well-rounded
The neurosurgeon said they'd have a better idea about his mental state in a few months. Matt had always been extremely gifted, and the uncertainty was devastating.
So it's nothing short of a miracle, they're sure, that Matt is on the verge of not only graduating from the University of Illinois, but joining one of the nation's most prestigious combined M.D./Ph.D. programs en route to becoming a physician scientist.
Crashing on that ski slope didn't change Matt's career course; he wanted to be a doctor ever since he was little. But the experience did change his perspective and purpose.
"I look back at how I lived pre- and post-accident, and I was pretty darn full of myself back then," Matt, 22, said. "Now, I'm doing this because I want to serve people rather than to get the most letters after my name."
Matt's road to recovery was relatively quick but incremental. Andy Schuelke remembers returning home to Hoffman Estates five days after the accident and watching his still extremely foggy son hesitantly approach the piano, a comforting instrument he knew in and out.
Doubts about any permanent cognitive damage were erased.
"We didn't think it was a good idea to let him try to play at the hospital because he would've been devastated had it not gone well," Andy Schuelke said. "But he played like it was intuitive. That was such a moment."
A tutor from Fremd started bringing Matt material from his AP physics class. He'd try to focus just five minutes at a time between hourlong breaks.
"It was foreign to me to not be able to think," Matt said.
Each week, another class was added to the mix. He returned to school a month later, excelled on the ACT exam and scored the highest mark on each of his AP tests. Matt later was named a National Merit Finalist and continued to be picked for elite music ensembles.
Once Matt got to U of I, eight titanium plates still embedded in his skull, he stood out from his peers. The chief academic adviser for bioengineering students recommended him for a summer internship at the Mayo clinic after his sophomore year.
Rochester, Minn., is where Matt fell in love with research.
Under the guidance of Dr. Michael Yaszemski, an Air Force brigadier general whose Tissue Engineering and Biomaterial Laboratory is partly funded by the defense department, Matt worked on peripheral nerve regeneration designing nerve conduits. He had yet to take organic chemistry, but his project was to create "nanopores" that allow in nutrients but keep out bigger cells.
He found himself admiring the dual world of his mentor, who spent a few days each week in the lab and a few days being a spinal surgeon.
"Dr. Yaszemski and I would leave a patient's room, and he'd say, 'Here's the case, here's the problem and here's why we're doing what we're doing in the lab,'" Matt said. "There's a lack of innovation in the clinic, and a lack of relevance in science, so putting a foot in each camp suddenly seemed the way to go."
Matt returned to Urbana-Champaign itching to get back into a white lab coat. Wawrzyniec Dobrucki, a senior research scientist at U of I's Beckman Institute for Advance Science and Technology, just happened to be willing to take on an undergrad student.
Since then, Matt has been on an American Heart Association-funded project to develop individualized treatment strategies for diabetes patients, especially after a heart attack.
"I initially took him as a volunteer to teach him about molecular imaging, but he quickly picked up the knowledge and the expertise," Dobrucki said. "He's very independent and asks very good and critical questions about science. He was doing things most universities leave to graduate students or postdoctoral fellows."
Matt was selected for an American Heart Association Scholarship for Undergraduate Fellowship, allowing him to work on the project last summer.
Come fall, Matt took on a whole new realm of responsibility, inducing heart attacks in rats and performing open-heart surgery.
He started slowly, practicing sewing skin closed. Then he opened and closed the animal. Then he went past the ribs. Pretty soon, he was performing the entire surgery himself.
"The (rat) heart is beating at mach-3, and you have to slide the needle to just the right spot," Matt said. "There's still nervousness and anticipation for that moment, but I've seen my skills get a lot better. It's pretty intense and cool."
Matt will end up either back at Mayo or the University of Texas-Southwestern in Dallas. A National Institutes of Health grant will pay for his entire medical scientist training program.
A devout Christian, Matt is certain of the role God played in orchestrating his surviving the accident and thriving since.
He thinks of the lift operator who watched the horrific crash and alerted ski patrol, which happened to be positioned at the top of the run. How he was the only one of his friends wearing a helmet. And how previous retreats taken by his church's youth group were in desolate areas, not the 15-minute drive from a Wausau, Wis., hospital like that day.
Then there's the neurosurgeon who was on call, able to operate within 45 minutes, as well as the countless people praying for him.
"A number of coincidences came together, and I firmly believe that the Lord used the neurosurgeon to save my life through those prayers," Matt said.
As if he didn't have enough going on, Matt is getting married in July to fellow U of I student Mary Eshelman of Elmhurst. He's looking forward to beginning a whole new set of adventures with her, though it won't be on the ski slope.
"I got back up on the horse the December after my accident and decided it was a good idea to ski black diamonds in Vail," he said. "I got a concussion and didn't know what day it was, so there's no skiing for me.
"The neurosurgeon says I don't have many more brain cells to give away."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.