Gary Heintz had been a bus driver in Rugby for 33 years when a fall on a Saturday afternoon changed his life.
On May 5, 2012, Heintz was recovering from not feeling well the previous day. Feeling better, he decided to mow the lawn and remembered that he had to finish some work with the rain gutters.
"I was exhausted," Heintz said. "After that, I don't really know what happened."
Gary Heintz (right), Arbor Park Head Caregiver Joy Frye, and Heintz’s cat pose for a photo. (Submitted photo
Heintz tripped over something, causing him to fall and hit his head on the concrete. He couldn't move, thinking he had had a stroke. A neighbor found him, and he was taken to the hospital.
Doctors later told him that he had an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning that his spinal cord had been pinched, cutting off his brain signals to the rest of his body.
"I had no control, and the doctor told me there was no hope for me," Heintz said. "I told him, 'No way, I'm going to walk again.'"
From there, it has been four and a half years of learning how to live again. "It's like starting your life all over again. I had to learn how to balance and sit up again. I had to learn how to eat again," Heintz said.
Heintz attended Sanford Health in Fargo for physical therapy then transferred to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, MN. He now resides in Moorhead, MN, in Arbor Park Assisted Living.
"It's my home now," Heintz said. "I had hopes of going back [to Rugby], but the doctors said I was not stable enough. That was just a shock to me, that I'd never be able to go to Rugby again. I just wish I could go back and walk into all the small town stores."
Heintz began driving school buses in Rugby in 1979, when he was 20 years old. He owned and operated a route until 1990, when Hartley's Buses took over. Heintz then drove for Hartley's, both school buses and charter buses. He drove charter buses for Hartley's from 2000 to 2012.
"I miss the challenge of driving the buses in the wintertime," Heintz said. "I miss being around the children, talking to the parents, and being out in the country just enjoying driving. Every day was something different. The kids would always say I was the best driver, which made me feel good. I miss all that."
Heintz has lived in Arbor Park for two years now, where he is able to enjoy barbeques in the summertime. Recently, he has found company with the facility's cat, who spends most of her time in Heintz's room. "The darn cat keeps coming into my room, but I don't mind. It's a therapy for me," he said.
In addition to playing with his new cat, he surfs the Internet and sometimes visits Walmart.
One of Heintz's fondest memories of his time since the accident was when he met Henry Winkler, best known for his role as Arthur Fonzarelli in 'Happy Days.' Winkler was visiting Heintz's facility and gave a speech about the benefits of Botox. "He was the first movie star I ever met in my life," Heintz said.
Heintz now spends his days in a power wheelchair. "Every time I drove a school bus, there would be a wheelchair lift," he said. "Now I'm in one."
Heintz takes therapy every six months in order to maintain his body. He also exercises every morning and evening for about 45 minutes in order to keep his muscles moving and his body in shape.
"I'm in a lot of pain," he said. "A lot of people don't realize what a spinal cord injury does to you. I can't dress myself. I can't go to the bathroom on my own. It was hard to adjust, and I've accepted it. I could be in a lot worse shape. My brain still works, just my body isn't working."
Since his injury, Heintz has not had much interaction with his friends in Rugby. "The sad thing is that when something like this happens to you, people shy away from you. They don't know what to say, I think. Your friends, even your family members, stop talking to you," he said.
Throughout everything, Heintz remains positive, considering himself lucky to have survived. During his time at the Courage Institute, there were patients who had suffered head trauma and spinal cord injury who became blind from the impact.
"They called me a rock star because I was doing so well and had a good attitude and was not giving up," Heintz said.
"People complain all the time about things, and I always say, 'I would gladly trade places with you.' If I could go out and walk again and just enjoy life again," Heintz said. "I still enjoy life, just in a different way now."