After a fall from a horse left him without use of his limbs, the late actor Christopher Reeve, said, “Some people are walking around with full use of their bodies and they’re more paralyzed than I am.”
The same positive attitude personifies the spirit of Stephanie Smith/Bachert, a journeyman inside wireman member of Topeka, Kan., Local 226.
“I don’t have a quitter mentality,” she says. Only three years after a tornado severely damaged her home and destroyed half her town, Stephanie fell five stories from a Kansas City balcony, breaking her back, arms, legs and some ribs. After 12 days in a coma, Smith/Bachert returned to consciousness as a paraplegic.
| Members of Topeka Local 226 volunteered their time to modify Stephanie Smith’s home to help her meet new challenges on the road to recovery.
“I woke up in the hospital in the middle of the night with no family there,” says Smith/Bachert, daughter of Local 226 electrician Steven Smith and wife of fellow member Kevin Bachert. “I’ve always been independent,” says Smith, who says it was frustrating to have others feed and care for her.
Smith and Bachert were married in March. A story in the Emporia Gazette recounted how Smith, whose family was told she might not live after her accident, walked down the aisle with her father’s help, only taking a seat in her wheelchair after her vows were complete.
Today, nine months after her accident and difficult stints at an acute care facility in Missouri and a rehabilitation facility in Nebraska, Stephanie’s morale is high.
“I had a terrible accident, but I never felt luckier because of the outpouring of support,” says Smith/Bachert, who worked as a contractor for P1 Group at the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant, leading crews as a foreman and helping plant engineers upgrade turbines and design a submersible heat trace system.
“[Stephanie] is strong-willed, which has really helped her get through this,” and she has upper-body strength that helps her “swing like a monkey,” as she works even harder to get stronger, her mother, Lynn Smith told the Emporia Gazette.
Immediately after her accident, Local 226 Assistant Business Manager Bob Matthews placed a call for fundraising help on her behalf to Raymond Rogers, business manager, Burlington, Kan., Local 225, representing workers at Wolf Creek, located closer to Smith/Bachert’s home in Reading.
Rogers launched a fundraising drive with folks in her hometown. Proceeds were supplemented by donations from Wolf Creek Nuclear Corp. and P1 Group. Then plans were drawn up for a ramp to ease Smith/Bachert’s access to her home and Local 226 members arrived to build it.
It wasn’t Smith/Bachert’s first experience with union heart and generosity. Even though some of her co-workers had just finished working the midnight shift after the 2011 tornado, they jumped right in bringing a generator, chainsaws, food and water, she says.
“This is what we do as union members,” says Rogers. “Stephanie had a need and we stepped up to fill it.” In addition to helping Smith, “We had a good opportunity to talk to people in her town who didn’t have much to do with unions about how we take care of each other,” says Rogers. Smith says camaraderie took over, with residents bringing cookies and snacks for the local union members and accompanying them to a local café. More union support came from out of state.
| Members of Local 226 celebrate wedding of co-workers, Stephanie Smith and Kevin Bachert. (L-R: Front row): William Granger (Stephanie’s apprentice instructor), Steven Smith (Stephanie’s father) Stephanie Smith/Bachert, Kevin Bachert, Jim Grunwald, Jon Lane (Back row): Shane Post, Robert Harton, Cory Harton, Shane Mannis.
Jim Flanagan, a member of Omaha, Neb., Local 305, took up yet another collection for her as she was in rehab at the city’s Madonna Hospital.
“Stephanie has some grit,” says Rogers. “I’ve told her a million times I wouldn’t want to be in her position. But if I was, I would want to be like her.”
Smith/Bachert’s grit, says Rogers, is balanced by a rich sense of humor. In rehab during the start of construction on the ramp, she warned volunteers they “better not mess up” her new vinyl siding, installed after the tornado. And, ever the foreman, she said, “At least I should have some say on the height of the ramp’s railing.”
Volunteers have already staged materials to build a wheelchair lift for the rear of Smith/Bachert’s house to allow her to use her back yard. “We want her to be able to be outside and listen to the birds sing,” says Rogers. Bachert, a former member of Detroit Local 58, has helped with further modifications of her home, working “day and night to make me comfortable,” says Smith/Bachert.
Hard work is paying off as her rehabilitation is already exceeding some of her doctors’ predictions.
As her body grows stronger, Smith said she is beginning to focus on getting back to work.
“I’ve thought of different avenues for work,” says Smith/Bachert, a former member of her local’s executive board. Maybe she will take some engineering classes or look for work as an instructor. Or maybe, she says, she will look to get more involved in labor’s “political side” with the Kansas Federation of Labor. “I was a per capita delegate and educated myself about labor politics,” she says.
“I have endured the worst, but life is still good,” says Smith/Bachert. “I can still do anything I want because my family and my union believe in me and I believe in them.”
Rogers says he’d love to see Stephine back at work. “The nuclear plant is turning over with ‘old goats’ like me. Nobody can replace what Stephanie has in her head and it would be great to see her someday working as an instructor there teaching others the electrical trade.”
Smith/Bachert’s steps to recovery are documented on Facebook.
Donations to help her make further adaptions to her home can be made to the Stephanie Smith Recovery Fund.