Fred and Jenny Schelert believe in angels. More specifically, “daily angels.”
“They are nurses, hospital staff and doctors,” Fred says. “But also complete strangers who perform acts of kindness, opening doors, saying words of encouragement or extending meaningful smiles.
“They are there to help.”
I believe in Fred and Jenny Schelert, and those angels around them. The Schelerts are heroes of mine. They are survivors.
I’ve known Fred for about six years. We met through a place that means a lot to both of us – the Food Bank of Lincoln. I have worked there since 2011. Fred volunteers there. He started as a volunteer fill-in for Jenny in 2009 when she was having health problems – a brain tumor that was benign but still quite a scare.
Just before Thanksgiving in 2016, Fred went in for a routine physical. Doctors said his white blood cell counts were too low and suggested a hospital stay. Big scare.
"Fred didn't want to go,” Jenny says, “because it was right before Thanksgiving, and we were having all these relatives coming in. I insisted that he go to the hospital.”
Good thing. He needed to be there. Fast forward to early spring of 2017, and it did not look good at all. Fred’s condition had deteriorated. Pneumonia had made matters worse. He had a tracheostomy and could barely communicate. I went to see Fred at Bryan East. I really thought it might be the last time I saw him alive. He was barely breathing.
“Here Fred had no white cell counts and pneumonia, and then he had a stroke while he was in the ICU,” Jenny says. “He had three strikes against him.”
No one is sure when the stroke happened, but it did major damage. There was a day around Easter time, when Jenny had to ask Fred if he wanted to live or die. He could not speak, but with a blink of the eyes, he signaled that he wanted to keep fighting, to the surprise of no one. His story is that of a fighter.
Born in Ukraine, Schelert came to Hebron, Neb., from Austria in 1952, when he was 10. His father died shortly after the family arrived in the United States. His mother raised six children with the help of welfare. No one in his family spoke a word of English. He graduated from UNL and taught languages at Lincoln East for more than 30 years.
He has also worked for Talent Plus, helping employers find the right fits for certain positions. It was Fred’s work that helped determine I might be a good fit for a development position at the Food Bank. I owe Fred a lot. I admire him more than a lot.
He is a star volunteer with Lincoln Literacy, another volunteer passion of his. In talking about that work, he once told me, “The drive to be significant and attain a sense of independence is rooted in all of us.”
It’s that fighting spirit.
Jenny remembers the call she got in early May of 2017.
"The nurse called and said 'Somebody wants to talk to you. It's Fred.'”
“It’s me,” he said.
The Schlelerts don’t give up.
Three weeks in the ICU at Bryan. Five weeks of acute care at Holmes Lake Rehabilitation and Care Center. Two months of home care. Then another two months of active care at LifePointe. Fred is now working out on his own. He is driving again. Big victory. He can sign his name again. Another big victory.
Now, a year after the heat of his battle, Fred is the caretaker. Jenny has struggled with diverticulitis the last few months. She is doing better. These two would really be lost without each other.
Fred and Jenny now volunteer at the Food Bank together on most Thursdays. Fred is in a wheelchair. Jenny by his side. He can actually drive again. All of these life-changers have made them a stronger team – this pair that met at UNL’s Love Library a few years back.
“It seems paradoxical and difficult to explain,” Fred says, “but in some ways my stroke has made me a better person and improved our marriage. I asked Jenny her thoughts on how I have changed. First thing she said was that ‘your emotions are much closer to the surface.’ I agree. I think we have become emotionally closer than before.”
“I certainly have a greater appreciation of all the things she does for me. And I believe we have a heightened awareness of each other's feelings and our approaching end days.”
Not so fast there, my friend. Lots of living to do. Lots of celebrating to do.
On June 9, Fred and Jenny Schelert were able to toast their 50th anniversary during a family reunion trip to Yellowstone. Fifty is a great accomplishment for any couple. But for these two? It is simply incredible. Maybe even miraculous.
Must be those angels.