'STRUM 4 Steve'
Steve Mireau, 25, sits in the living room of his parents' house on Paperjack Drive. A self-taught guitarist, he prepares to play a song he admits he memorized.
"I can't read music," Steve says, blue eyes twinkling. "People put music in front of me and it's like Spanish to me."
That's not to mean that Steve is a beginner. In fact, since he first taught himself seven years ago, he has been the rhythm guitarist for the local band "Mark Stary and the Whiskey Roses."
"He named it," Steve said, referring to group leader Stary, with a laugh, "we had nothing to do with it."
As Steve prepares to play, his mother, Sue, helps get his adaptive equipment: thumb pick, gloves, wrist braces, and supporting bar on which the guitar neck rests. He lays the guitar across his lap and uses a slide bar to hold the neck while he awkwardly moves his hand with the thumbpick over the strings.
"It's still hard to do since I don't have the use of my fingers," Steve says apologetically.
* * *
In addition to music, Steve's other passion was motocross. He began riding in the fall of 1997 and competed in his first professional race in 2005.
"I was up against factory guys," Steve said. "I thought I did well, but results-wise, not so much."
Undeterred, Steve still raced with friends on private motocross tracks. He kept at it, despite suffering "at least a dozen" injuries over 10 years.
August 8, 2007 started out no different. Steve was riding that afternoon on a friend's property, along with several others. Kim Shilts, his girlfriend of three years and fellow motocross rider, was also there.
As Steve was practicing he noticed something odd with his bike.
"It kept cutting out on me," Steve said. "I was having troubles with it, but didn't think anything of it."
Steve said he was heading back to the van with the bike when he decided to take another small jump along the way. During the jump, the bike cut out again.
"I tried to tuck and roll," Steve recalled. "But my head hit then and the motorcycle hit me like a hammer. I was able to see my feet come right over. It drilled me right into the ground."
No one at the track had seen the accident, and it took a few minutes before anyone realized what had happened. "I couldn't believe it," Steve continued. "It hurt; was very painful. My whole life was changing right then. I thought what I could have done differently. Most of all I was scared."
Luckily, Steve was conscious the whole time. He said he knew he had broken his neck, and had to tell his well-meaning friends not to remove his helmet.
"Another guy that was there had broken his neck in Iowa -- and he was one of them that said to take my helmet off," Steve said incredulously.
He lay there in the dirt for 30 minutes until the ambulance arrived from Stillwater to take him to Regions Hospital. Kim rode in the front of the ambulance while Steve was strapped to a board in the back.
"Every bump we hit, my body would move away from my head," he recalled.
* * *
A shadow of frustration crosses Steve's face as he strums his acoustic guitar.
"I practice when I'm at home and everyone else is at work," Steve says. "Other times I'm on the phone with bills, on the computer doing research, just finding out more information."
The "everyone else" in Steve's life includes his parents, Kim and her 4-year-old daughter Kylie. They live in his parent's house that they have remodeled as best as they could to accommodate Steve's wheelchair.
"My parents have modified their home so we can stay here temporarily," Steve explained, indicating the openness in the ranch-style home. "They even moved downstairs so we can live up here."
* * *
When the ambulance reached Regions, it took four people to remove the helmet. As the ceiling flashed with the X-ray lights and people swarmed around him, Steve heard his diagnosis.
"They said I crushed my C-6 vertebrae," Steve said as he looked out the dining room window. "That I was paralyzed from the chest down.
"They said I would never walk again."
Because of the swelling, Steve was given steroids and was cooled to bring his body temperature down. In the meantime, Kim contacted Steve's parents and Amy, his 28-year-old sister.
Ironically, Kim said that she and Steve had a conversation about this situation beforehand.
"We had been going to a motocross race a long time ago," Kim recalled. "We both know it's a dangerous sport, and as we were driving we talked about what we would do if one of us ended up in a wheelchair."
Kim, who had been married once before, said it was a checkpoint in their relationship.
"We both had the same answer -- that we would stick together."
Two days later, doctors performed a six-hour operation - four hours longer than planned because of how the bone was crushed.
"They had to go through my front," Steve said, motioning to his chest. "They took out the C-6 and put in plastic trays instead of using donor bone or hip bone. In time, my bones will fuse - they won't remove it."
He stayed at Regions for nine days after the operation. After that, he moved to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis where he was an in-patient for two months. Within the first few days, he had lost 20 pounds.
"It was mostly in my arms and chest," Steve said. "I couldn't grab things."
It was during this time that he was learning how to transfer from wheelchair to bed. Since he cannot contract his muscles, he has to roll.
Another aspect he had to get used to was checking his clothes every half-hour.
"My clothes can't get too wrinkled because I'd get bedsores and not know it," Steve said.
Kim said that although their whole lifestyle has changed, they are managing to deal with it.
"It was little things that we took for granted," Kim said, "like walking together and holding hands. We still can hold hands -- just in a different way."
Steve had been self-employed doing finishing work on houses, such as mudding and sheetrocking. His insurance required him to leave Sister Kenny and move to Golden Valley Courage Center for 60 more days where he continued his rehabilitation therapy.
"I was able to cook in their adaptive kitchen," Steve said. "I can't really cook here since I can't get my wheelchair under the sink and stove.
"Even though I use a microwave, you'd think I made it from scratch because it takes so long," he said with a laugh.
* * *
As Steve maneuvers his borrowed wheelchair back to the dining area, he admits that being in a wheelchair is humbling.
"Kim has been doing everything until last week," Steve says. "I have some caregivers coming in now."
He looks outside the window, and relates how he would like to have a house of his own where he can cook and shower easily. Even going outside the front door requires some assistance to get over threshold.
Perhaps his biggest desire is to be independently mobile again.
"I took a driving program so I could operate a vehicle with hand controls," Steve says excitedly. "I would like to get a van so I can stay in my wheelchair, but the hand controls for an existing car are $900 alone."
Another item on his wish list is to get a power wheelchair, which costs roughly $25,000.
"To be independent, I would need that, especially if there are any inclines."
* * *
To help with the mounting medical bills, Steve's friends and family are organizing a benefit for March 8. It's planned for Fat Matt's at 1767 County Road T in New Richmond. A spaghetti dinner will be served from 2-6 p.m. followed by live entertainment until 1 a.m., starting off with Steve's former band. There will also be a bake sale, raffles, 50/50 drawings and children's activities. The cost is $15 for adults and $5 for kids.
"STRUM 4 Steve" blue bracelets will also be for sale at the benefit. Kim said a friend of hers came up with the idea: S is for Strength, T is for Triumph, R is for Recovery, U is for Understanding, M is for Miracles.
"One thing I tell him a lot is that he is an amazing man," Kim said proudly. "He has the drive and the will, and he touches people's lives each day."
Steve said his bandmates have asked him to perform with him that night, but he has not decided yet.
"I'm not comfortable where I am now as to where I had been earlier," Steve admits. "I'm practicing though, so maybe I will."