At age 15, many high school boys dream of dunking basketballs or catching footballs. Mike Schulenberg was dreaming of surviving cancer.
In a telephone interview, 28-year-old Schulenberg said, “In October 1999, I was playing football as a high school freshman and went from being one of the fastest runners on the team to hardly running at all because of knee pain.”
Then a doctor found a tumor. Over the next year, Schulenberg endured 24 weeks of chemotherapy, surgery to remove the tumor, an artificial knee replacement, a metal rod inserted into his leg, and 24 more weeks of chemotherapy. He also had muscle reconstruction surgery and acquired permanent nerve damage from one of the surgeries.
He said, “Due to the artificial knee and muscle reconstruction, I couldn’t run or jump anymore because of the pain. And because of the nerve damage, I had to get an ankle-foot orthosis (to support my foot). Between 2000-09, I broke three artificial knees because I was so tall and active. Artificial knees are built for someone in their 70s, not 17.”
The last time his artificial knee came apart was on New Year’s Eve 2009. An orthopedic surgeon gave Schulenberg several options towards remedying the continuing problem, including having an above-knee amputation. He had been thinking about the possibility anyway.
He said, “The decision I made to choose an amputation was the best I could have made. I can get so much more done now.” To get around today, he walks using a high-tech, above-knee, Computer-Leg prosthesis.
His amputation and Computer-Leg don’t slow him down one bit. He is a Minnesota Sled Hockey Association board member and plays with the Minnesota Wild (NHL) Sled Hockey team. In addition, he competes in the annual Extremity Games in New Braunfels, Texas, where he and other people with disabilities participate in competitive events like wake boarding, skateboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and weight lifting.
About the Extremity Games, he said, “Everybody there is in the same situation and understands what you’re going through. Nobody feels sorry for anybody. It’s like a big family. Sometimes it’s more fun to just go hang out there than to compete.”
Schulenberg works at Prosthetic Laboratories in Mankato, Minnesota, as a certified prosthetist, a job that involves the fitting of clients with artificial devices to replace missing body parts. He speaks often to young people considering an amputation.