In October 2005, 21-year-old Army Sgt. Erik Schei was shot in the head during his second tour in Iraq. The bullet shattered the top half of his skull.
Christine and Gordon Schei got the phone call about their son’s injury at around 4 a.m. Christine Schei says her husband was “white as a sheet” and shaking after answering.
A sniper had struck their son; a bullet “entered above his right ear and exited above his left,” Gordon Schei says.
“They told us he’d be a vegetable his whole life — wouldn’t be able to eat, wouldn’t be able to speak,” he says. “And prior to him going to Iraq, I had had a conversation with Erik. He had asked me if anything ever happened to him to pull the plug.”
Christine Schei says she understood that promise, but she couldn’t bear the idea of ending her son’s life. She asked the doctor to confirm, to show her on paper that there was no brain activity.
“And he looked at me and he was really quiet. I said, ‘You know what? There’s no more talking about unplugging.’ And at that point, we decided to take him home,” she says.
And they’ve been his primary caregivers for the past eight years.
“I was scared out of my mind,” she says. “I was scared to death to give him the wrong meds. So I must have measured over and over the first week, so I wouldn’t kill him.”
But now, Erik Schei is “smiling and laughing every day,” his father says.
Once in a while, he does have a bad day, Christine Schei says.
“But it’s rare. And I think he doesn’t want to show that side of him. He knows how hard it is to feed him, cut his fingernails, shave him,” she says. “And he must say 10 times, ‘I’m so sorry Mom. I’m so sorry,’ because he knows that I have to change his diaper. And I know that’s hard on him.”
Gordon Schei worries about the future and their ability to care for their son as they get older (they are both in they’re 50s now), but he once asked Erik if they had made the right decision.
“I’m alive,” he responded. “And I’m glad I’m alive.”
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Yasmina Guerda.