As the country finished watching the New England Patriots face-off against the Atlanta Falcons in last year’s Super Bowl, Lori Schenkenberger received an earth-shattering phone call that left her life forever changed.
As her husband, Steve, went out for a nighttime ride on his mountain bike, a suspected drunk driver struck him and sped from the scene. The father of five was left fighting for his life until two passersby found him and called paramedics. Soon after, Lori received word that her husband had been transported to Mission Hospital in Orange County, California.
“I can visually remember every single detail from when I got the phone call,” Lori, from San Juan Capistrano, California, tells PEOPLE. “It’s PTSD for me — permanently there. I think I was so numb to it, and it’s hard to describe the feelings.”
Lori, 37, rushed to the hospital, not knowing her husband’s condition.
“I didn’t know what to expect driving to the hospital,” she says. “I didn’t know if he was dead. I didn’t know if he was going to be laying there with a broken arm. I just didn’t know.”
At Mission Hospital, Steve, 37, underwent emergency surgery to remove a piece of his skull to relieve swelling in his brain—which was severely damaged, along with much of the left side of his body. Because of what transpired that night, Steve—who Lori says was an avid surfer with a great sense of humor — is now fed through a tube and is in a wheelchair. He can’t speak, but he can make sounds.
“He has to relearn how to tell his brain to connect to his body,” Lori explains, adding that Steve still has feeling and function in his legs and arms. “Essentially, he wants to do it, but he doesn’t know how to make his toe move. He just can’t do it — yet.”
Over the last year, Lori has had to quickly transition into becoming a caretaker for her husband, while also raising their five children—ages 1 to 10. Their youngest child was only 3 months old when the accident occurred.
“It’s pretty much the gnarliest thing that I’ve ever had to go through, and would never wish on anybody, ever,” she says. “I just do whatever needs to be done without stopping to think about myself. I just do whatever I need to do to survive, and make it happen.”
Steve has gone through numerous surgeries and therapies to help him regain some movement in his extremities, however minimal they may be. So far, his improvements are marked by being able to twitch his foot or point his fingers. While these milestones are measured by inches, they are nevertheless significant because they offer hope.
“It makes me super encouraged and excited,” Lori says of these triumphant moments that can come at unpredictable times. “When you’re in it every day you don’t really stop and appreciate, or maybe recognize, all the little things that he’s doing.”
Lori says Steve—who she met in high school and then married in 2004 — was also deeply devoted to his Christian faith, and it is this faith in God that she has routinely relied on to stay optimistic through much of the last year.
“I know he has a long road ahead of him,” she says. “I know he’s going to be okay again, one day, despite what doctors say, but I know he’s fully in there.”
With all that’s happened, Lori has sought help from fundraising to cover expenses and equipment, such as a wheelchair accessible van to transport Steve and their children. In January, doctors found Steve had kidney stones and a urinary infection, and he was hospitalized for over a week. This hospitalization, coupled with their normal appointments, supplements and therapies, has led to towering medical expenses.
A family friend set up a GoFundMe page to help the Schenkenbergers raise money to cover their bills, which has so far raised $35,000 of a $100,000 goal. There is also an Instagram campaign using the hashtag #loveforlori to raise awareness for fundraisers benefiting the family, who document their story on the Facebook page Prayers For Steve Schenkenberger.
Locals in their community have done much to help the family in their time of need, and have brought them meals and groceries. Recently, Lori hired someone to help her around the house, which has also given her a moment take a breather.
“Even though it’s been a year later, the chaos still hasn’t died down, as far as taking care of Steve and the kids,” she says. “But the community has, at least, made it tolerable now.”
As chance would have it, on the morning of this year’s Super Bowl, police arrested 53-year-old Timothy Anthony Cronin, who is suspected of hitting Steve that night in February. Lori says she isn’t concerned about what happens with him, she’ll leave his punishment up to God. Instead, she is focused on taking care of her children and making sure Steve continues to improve. She says she has no doubt he will make a full recovery one day.
“I think he’s one day going to be out surfing again with our kids, being able to work, and being able to travel the world with us,” she says. “Plus, I can’t raise five kids all by myself… we need Steve.”