Saving Grace

I took a rare day off work in search of a deer and became an unlikely guardian angel.

Author: Michael Schuff ’77

A novice hunter at age 48, I hit a buck from a tree stand on the first Sunday of bow season in October 2003. I tracked it through the woods and into the adjacent cornfield on our family’s farmland. The trail through seven-foot-high stalks thinned after a couple hundred yards of zig-zags and U-turns, and darkness had fallen. My recent bowhunter’s training class stressed that hunters must make a reasonable effort to track and recover wild game, so I decided to take an impromptu day off work (rare for me) and find the deer on Monday.

My wife’s 72-year-old uncle accompanied me on a six-hour search, corn row by corn row, until we decided it was time to stop. We gave it our best. I was testing his pacemaker, and I was whipped myself. I told him to sit tight, I would get our gear and swing back around to pick him up.

As I was heading toward my truck, I heard farm equipment. The guys who rented the land were there to harvest the corn. I steered my old pickup down the narrow lane to see if they might be working in the field we just searched and came across the deer we were looking for. Could we be so lucky?

At the back of the barn, I watched the first load of corn dumped into a big truck from the combine harvester. I waved to the farmer, Malcolm, and continued driving to see if I could catch his son, Eric, and ask him to be on the lookout for the deer.

I found him working on his truck, or so I thought. As I drove nearer, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. The young farmer was laying out over the front of his pickup truck. I yelled to him. No response. I jumped out of my truck and ran toward him, yelling “Eric! Eric!” No response. He was pinned between his truck and an 18-wheel grain hauler. His lips were blue and he showed no sign of breathing. I thought he was dead.

In a panic, I ran back to Malcolm in the combine harvester and caught him just before he pulled away. He saw my stricken face and wild gestures, jumped off the harvester and sprinted with me toward the truck.

It took several cranks to start, but he backed it up to free his son as I held hm by the shoulders. I thought we were too late. There was no life in Eric’s 6-foot-4 body, heavy, limp and unresponsive. I stretched him out on his back. He started gasping and choking for breath. His eyes started to roll. I hoped that was a good sign, but wasn’t sure.

Malcolm immediately started CPR while reaching into his son’s coveralls and pulling out a flip phone for me to call 911. As coincidental as me being there at that instant, the fire chief who lived down the road also happened to be off work that day. He heard the dispatched call, jumped in his truck and was driving through the corn before I even hung up with the emergency dispatcher.

He “bagged” him with oxygen to help him breathe. More help arrived soon. The chief called for an airlift that rushed him to the hospital. A few more minutes without air, the chief said, and he would have been gone.

All that was left to do was pray. I remember telling my wife that night, “We might need every candle in the Grotto lit for him to pull though.”

Schuff Eric Planting
Two decades after his brush with death, Eric still works the land.

Nineteen Years Later

In early 2022, my wife was visiting with a family friend who had just lost her husband.

“I was going through quite a few things, and I came across this,” she said to my wife. “Did you ever see this letter?”

It was a note from Betty, the mother of the young farmer who had the accident in October 2003, enclosed that year with their family’s Christmas cards. It was titled: OUR DAY OF MIRACLES.

We had never seen it.

“The events of October 20, 2003, became a list of miracles that will be well remembered by my family and many other people who were involved that day,” the letter began, going on to recount the harrowing experience, including an eerie coincidence that preceded it.

That morning, a relative had asked Malcolm for a donation to Mercy Flight. “‘Yeah, it would probably be a good idea to send them $100, because you never know if we will ever need them,’ my husband told him, not knowing how prophetic that statement was.”

Tragedy had befallen the family before. In 1973, their 4-year-old son, Michael, 17 months older than Eric, was hit by a car. Malcolm had performed CPR, just as he would three decades later for Eric, while Betty did chest compressions. Despite their efforts, Michael died.

It’s gut-wrenching to think they could have lost another son in such a similar way three decades later. That’s why, to Eric’s parents, the sheer fluke that I had spent that day tracking the deer and happened upon him when I did was more than lifesaving luck. It was the hand of God, one miracle in a series of them that spared them the devastation of losing a second son.

But for a few terrifying hours, they did not know whether their prayers would be answered. When they arrived at the hospital where Eric had been flown, they were unaware of his condition and feared the worst. They found him talking to his wife, Vicki, as if nothing had happened.

Other than some discomfort in his back, he felt fine. His biggest complaints were about the neck brace and precautionary X-rays that prevented him from going home. The tests showed that Eric’s only injury was a six-inch welt under his shoulder blade.

Near the end, the letter noted the role I felt blessed to play: “The hunter whom the Lord used as Eric’s guardian angel that day: his name is Michael!”

Michael Schuff retired this year after over 45 years as a quality professional in manufacturing. His wife Mollie is fifth generation on the family land where they have resided for 44 years.