"I was signing invoices and it felt like I'd never left," said Harold Schapelhouman, reflecting upon his first day back at work on Jan. 6 as fire chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District after a fall last May left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
Then he realized that while he still felt like the same person, the world had changed in his absence. Hundreds of emails piled up about issues that may not matter now. Colleagues moved on to other jobs. New directors took their seats on the board.
"I feel like I've fast-forwarded to the end of the movie," he said. Working part-time for at least two weeks, he plans to catch up on the state of the district with interim chief Dan Belville, who will stay on temporarily to assist with the transition.
Chief Schapelhouman may well be the first person to serve as fire chief anywhere with this degree of disability, but he's found inspiration and support from other public safety officers, such as Sean Simonson, a former firefighter now serving as emergency services manager for the city of Milpitas after he was paralyzed following a mountain biking accident.
Eight months ago, the chief wasn't sure he could come back. Even after finishing a hospital stay that saw almost every complication possible, he faced hours and hours of exams to earn a license to drive, to demonstrate to his doctors he could handle the job on top of therapy to rebuild strength and learning how to navigate the world sitting down.
Gracefully accepting help presents another challenge as people try to figure out how to treat him. Neighbors and colleagues and firefighters mowed his lawn, cleaned the pool, cooked for his family. The parents of his 14-year-old daughter's classmates put up holiday lights and then took them down. And if watching others do tasks that he used to delight in feels bittersweet, it's also not without gratitude.
"I wouldn't have made it as far without the people who support me," Chief Schapelhouman said.
It's a balancing act, though. "I get to the door of a restaurant and people jump up to open it. But you have to learn how to open it and sometimes that's awkward, as you try to maneuver. I had to change my attitude. I realized I had to be a bit nicer about (the help)," Chief Schapelhouman said. "I used to be the guy who jumped up."
His return is not without controversy.
"Is everyone thrilled I'm back? I'm pretty sure everybody is not thrilled I'm back," he said. But the long absence left time to reflect on difficult decisions made in the past, as well as to develop greater compassion. "I try to do the right thing instead of being right. There may be other ways, though, to get to the point where everybody sees themselves as part of the solution."
Some say they're worried about his capacity to respond to the scene of an emergency. The district is buying a used van for about $52,000 that's adapted for his use and includes emergency lights and radio, to replace the work vehicle Chief Schapelhouman used before an accommodation required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In his busiest year as chief since 2007, he said, he went to the scene 19 times; in the slowest year, six. "I'm not afraid of that. I'm looking forward to the first incident just to get that concern out of the way. Responding to the scene is part of the job. But I'm not combating fires directly anymore and we have very competent incident commanders."
Mostly, as before, he plans to be on the sidelines, updating the press and keeping an eye on the overall situation.
Board President Rex Ianson said a "whole lot of unknowns" remain: How will it go the first time the chief drives to the scene? Do some tasks, such as meetings in other jurisdictions that will now take much more time, need to be delegated? Does the district need a deputy chief?
Time will tell. For now, Mr. Ianson said the board has learned it needs a better succession plan in place should a key figure suddenly drop out of the action again. "We weren't quite prepared to have the chief be out that long. It was a little bit of a scramble."
Others have suggested the chief should just retire. It's something Chief Schapelhouman said he and his family considered, then decided it was important that he have the chance to continue making a contribution to the fire district, drawing upon his 33 years of experience and organizational knowledge. It's also good for people to see him succeed, he said.
The chief isn't sure he'll reach 40 years of service before choosing to call it quits the goal before the accident but said, "I'm not going to pack up tomorrow."