When a Friend Becomes a Patient

Bill Schomburg and Dr. Sutyak

Bill Schomburg and Dr. Sutyak

Friends come and go. A true friend, however, is invaluable. They stick up for you, never judge and are with you in good times and bad.

And when times get really bad, it helps when that true friend is the one person who can help get you back on your feet—literally.

Bill Schomburg and John Sutyak, MD, Associate Professor, Division of General Surgery, SIUSOM, have been friends for years. Professionally, Bill travels the country consulting on how to best manage artificial turf fields. Dr. Sutyak is the head surgeon at the Southern Illinois Trauma Center (SITC). They met at Hope Church in Springfield where Bill serves as service director and Dr. Sutyak’s son volunteers on the worship team. Bill also coordinates the annual Springfield Youth Football Jamboree, where Dr. Sutyak and SITC staff volunteer.

On the morning of Nov. 3, 2010, their personal and professional lives collided when Bill fell 35 feet from a ladder while helping a friend cut down a large cherry tree.

“We were trying to take the top of the tree down first and the second part after,” Bill said. “When the first part hit the ground, it hit right at my ladder and ejected me. People who don’t believe life changes in an instant haven’t been around the block very far.”

Bill was rushed to Memorial Medical Center, where his treatment was coordinated through the Southern Illinois Trauma Center at Memorial , the very same department his good friend
Dr. Sutyak leads. The SITC consists of SIU School of Medicine surgeons together with Memorial’s emergency teams and Springfield Clinic and Orthopedic Center of Illinois surgeons. When emergencies come to Memorial’s door, this team is activated for the most complex, severe and life-threatening cases.

“I almost couldn’t recognize him,” Dr. Sutyak said. “He had blood on his face and was in severe pain. His legs were severely deformed and swollen. I know Bill as a tireless worker and servant to those in need. He always sacrifices for others. Now, we had to serve him.”

Eight days after the accident, Bill woke up. He had shattered both knees upon impact. His right hip was broken. The bones in his feet resembled a complex 3D jigsaw puzzle. Amazingly, he suffered no spinal damage.

One of the first things Bill remembers is Dr. Sutyak coming to see him during rounds.

“Every morning, he was there,” Bill said. “He didn’t treat me better because we were friends; he treated me better because that’s him. The difference with that whole team is not just what they can do with their hands, but it’s what they can do with their hearts and minds.”

For Dr. Sutyak, it was hard to see his friend in that kind of position.

“To see someone you know, have watched give his time and energy helping others, in such a severely ill state is difficult.” Dr. Sutyak said. “I was immensely proud of the whole team. They just did their normal jobs with grace and compassion. I was privileged to watch my friend benefit.”

After nearly a month, Bill left Memorial in a wheelchair on Thanksgiving Day. Though he was in a tremendous amount of pain and would have to endure months of physical therapy to regain control of his lower body, he left feeling thankful.

“Dr. Sutyak’s wife told me every time I walk across the stage at church, Dr. Sutyak will say, ‘It’s a miracle’ under his breath.  And it is,” Bill said.

“Bill never gave up. He had a tremendous will to endure painful therapy in order to walk and return to work,” Dr. Sutyak said. “Of course, his amazing sense of humor helped, too.”

Bill is writing a book about his experience. He wants his story to give people hope and encourage them to overcome difficult odds. Next month he’ll move with his family to Cincinnati for a job promotion; however, he has every intention of staying in touch with the man who helped save his life – his good friend Dr. Sutyak.

“I wouldn’t have had that fight in me without the care I received to get back up to fight,” he said. “Dr. Sutyak leads this incredible team that saves lives every day. His very nature is to accept only the best of the best—he lives his life at an exemplary level—as a father, member of the community, doctor and friend. I’ll miss him.”