Tanner Schmaling does physical therapy Feb. 28 at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, Illinois. Schmaling can now walk without assistance. 
PHOTO SUBMITTED
Tanner Schmaling does physical therapy Feb. 28 at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, Illinois. Schmaling can now walk without assistance. PHOTO SUBMITTED

DELAVAN, Wis. – Tanner Schmaling was told he would spend the majority of his life in a wheelchair after breaking his neck in a swimming accident in January. At best, he would be able to walk short distances. But that was not a diagnosis this dairy farmer was willing to live with.
“I wasn’t content with being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life,” Tanner said. “I thought, how am I going to do the things I still want to accomplish in life if I’m in a wheelchair?”



Tanner and his wife, Maddie, own and operate Maple-Leigh Futures near Delavan – a certified in vitro fertilization facility and boarding business for donors and show cattle. Maple-Leigh Futures houses around 90 donors and 25 high-type animals for customers around the country. Maddie also works full time at Land O’Lakes. Tanner farms alongside his parents, John and Jill, on their 120-cow commercial dairy, where the Schmalings farm 1,000 acres.
Tanner and Maddie were on vacation in Maui, Hawaii, with other family members celebrating Tanner’s parents’ 40th wedding anniversary when the accident took place.
“It was the second to the last day of our vacation,” Tanner said. “We had a great time before that.”
On Jan. 7, Tanner was swimming 20 yards offshore when he dove into a wave and was pulled underneath by the undercurrent.
“The wave flipped my whole body, and I heard and felt my neck crack on the ocean floor,” Tanner said. “I went limp and passed out face down in the water.”
Tanner’s world went dark before the water carried him back to shore. His family was there, as well as a doctor who immediately tended to Tanner until paramedics arrived. Tanner lay helpless, unable to move. He was 90% paralyzed.
“It was the scariest feeling waking up and not having the ability to move or feel anything,” he said. “The only thing I could move were the fingertips on my right hand.”
Tanner’s long journey of recovery began two days later when surgeons fused the C4 through C6 vertebrate in his neck during an eight-hour surgery. This involved putting in two metal plates and four screws that will stay with Tanner permanently. He wore a neck brace for 12 weeks following the operation.
Tanner began making small movements with his right hand and tried standing up with the help of a machine. Hospital staff used a sling to move him from the bed to the wheelchair and back again.
“I told myself, this is not going to be how it is; this is not going to be it for me,” Tanner said. “It was not acceptable in my mind to say this is who I am now.”
No family was allowed to visit Tanner during his two-week hospital stay in Hawaii due to coronavirus restrictions. When the ambulance took him away that dreaded day on the beach, Maddie did not see her husband again until he was transferred closer to home.
“That was traumatizing,” Maddie said. “I got very little sleep. I had occasional FaceTime with Tanner, and all doctor updates were done over the phone. We had no face-to-face contact with anyone.”
The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, Illinois, was where Tanner spent the next six weeks – a rehabilitation hospital specializing in neurological injuries. When a doctor told Tanner he would probably be confined to a wheelchair for longer distances, he and Maddie were devastated. But, they soon shook off the news with a determined spirit.
“It was a tough thing to swallow, but it didn’t take long for Maddie and I to decide this isn’t it,” Tanner said. “We said that’s not an option. The doctor only knew me for a few hours when she made that prediction. I wasn’t going to let her define my future.”
A will to walk again powered Tanner’s ambitious goal to rid himself of the wheelchair as he faced the most challenging year of his life. Fighting his way back home, Tanner was relentless in inching toward a life of independent mobility.
“There were a lot of hard moments,” he said. “But, we had many people supporting us, and I had way too much to come home to that I couldn’t afford to give up. Family was the No. 1 driving force, and the farm was a very close second.”
Tanner longed to be home with his family and his cows. His absence from the farm left a hole that employees, friends and neighbors worked tirelessly to fill. Tanner felt comforted by the fact his farm was in capable hands.
“The farming community all around us stepped up and helped too,” he said. “Everybody came together when I got hurt. That’s what farmers do. If somebody goes down, we make sure the job gets done until people are back on their feet.”
Countless cards, phone calls, text messages and prayers flooded in to Tanner and Maddie.  
“The dairy community is amazing,” Tanner said. “People we didn’t even know sent stuff. The people in this industry are top-notch.”
Maddie agreed.
“The local community has been great too,” she said. “We had meals dropped off every day for a month to keep people going around here.”
Tanner’s desktop computer was brought to the hospital so he could work on billing and sending emails.
“I liked doing little things like that to still have my foot in the door,” he said. “I wanted to feel like I was contributing. It was my way of saying I’m still here.”
Patience was essential as Tanner learned how to do the things people often take for granted.
“It took forever to put my sock on or tie my shoe,” he said. “It was very frustrating. I had to retrain every muscle. Walking is huge, but the little things add up too – like combing my hair, putting on deodorant or brushing my teeth.”
Toward the end of February, Tanner took his first steps since the accident while wearing a gate belt that allowed a therapist to offer him support and balance. Tanner’s proudest moment came the day he was released from the hospital.
“I walked out of the hospital,” he said. “I did not get wheeled out.”
Tanner was sized for a wheelchair and sent home with one, but he stuck it in the closet and never used it. A week later, the wheelchair was picked up and taken away. When Tanner came home March 6, the barn was where he wanted to go first.
“After stepping back in the barn for the first time in over two months, my heart was full, and it felt so good to be back in there where I belonged,” Tanner said.
He wasted no time getting back to work and proceeded to take insulation off of a water line the next day. He walked with the assistance of braces on his left side. The functioning of his left hand was limited, and his strength was minimal. For eight weeks, Tanner and Maddie drove three times a week to the Shirley Ryan outpatient facility in Arlington Heights, Illinois, for physical therapy.  
“Neurological injuries are so unpredictable, and you wonder, how much are you going to get back?” Tanner said. “I wasn’t supposed to be able to drive, but I’m doing that too. I was a healthy, active person beforehand, and that helps a lot.”
Tanner can also operate machinery and did all the planting this past spring. In addition, he is driving truck and trailer and the grain semi.
“Farming is its own exercise” Tanner said. “People undergoing therapy might not have a job to come back to. I do physical therapy in the morning and come back to the farm to do a full day’s work.”
Every week gets better as Tanner is able to do more and more of the everyday tasks he did before the accident.
“I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, but I’m not to the point yet where I’m satisfied,” he said.
In regards to strengthening, Tanner said he has a long way to go. He is limited on his left side when it comes to moving his hand and foot and being able to walk with a good gait. He also endures limited feeling in his fingers and cannot feel anything in his right thigh.
“I had quite a bit of pain and still do,” Tanner said. “But I weaned myself off of pain meds right after I got out of the hospital. It feels like a constant frostbite in some of my extremities, like a tingling all over my body.”
According to Tanner who continues to do physical therapy three times a week locally, the mental part is just as challenging as the physical part.
“You have to get yourself to go to therapy and not settle for where you’re at,” he said. “I’m trying to get back to fast walking and am also learning how to run again.”
The barn at Maple-Leigh Futures is full. The business Tanner created continues to click along smoothly, almost as if he were never gone.
“Things are going extremely well,” Tanner said. “We picked up new clients and also had a great year in the show ring as well as on the genomic side. I’m looking forward to hitting the show season with full steam next year. I would also like to do another sale in the future.”
With much to live for, he and Maddie are grateful for the blessings received. The couple is looking forward to another special gift as they are expecting their first child in April 2023.
“That’s extra motivation for me to get as close to 100% as I can,” Tanner said.
Tanner has defied expectations, gaining the freedom to walk on his own and resume living the life he knows and loves.
“This was quite an ordeal, but it makes you a stronger person and enables you to look at things in life a little differently,” Tanner said. “It’s not impossible, and I want to thank everyone who helped in one fashion or another. Prayers were answered, and we have so much to be thankful for.”