Marsha Bass Schmid ’99 was living her best life before an accident changed everything. Now, she’s using her journey to motivate others.

FOR MARSHA BASS SCHMID, a twist of fate began with a slight twist of the neck. A medical sales rep for AgaMatrix, she  specialized in diabetes testing equipment and covered a multistate territory. A former Tigerette at Auburn, she had a 4-year-old son, was physically fit and recently married.  But sciatic nerve pain in her leg had bothered her for years, and she had visited a chiropractor more than 50 times for relief. The usual method to relieve the pain and inflammation would be to adjust her neck, then her back.

On March 30, 2011, something went wrong at one of her doctor’s appointments.

“At first, I couldn’t see,” recalled Schmid. “I called my husband to say ‘I can’t drive home, something is not right.’ He came to get me and he said, ‘If something is knocked out of place, [the chiropractor] can knock it back in.’ I went back in, the adjustment was made and that sealed the deal.”

Schmid had dissected the vertebral artery connecting her heart to her brain. After her condition perplexed doctors for 12 hours, she was rushed to Piedmont Hospital. They knew right away she had suffered a brainstem stroke, one of the most dangerous a person can have.

For the next year she lived on a ventilator, unable to open her eyes, speak, swallow or move. Survivors call it “locked-in” syndrome, where you are able to hear noises around you, but are unable to respond. It was a nightmare.

That was almost a decade ago, but it may as well be another lifetime. She’s long adjusted to moving in a wheelchair, and though her speech is limited, her mind is as sharp as ever.

“It’s kind of ironic for an English major,” said Schmid from her home in Peachtree City, Ga. “When my ability to speak was affected, it was hard because that was how I made my living; all of a sudden that was taken away.”

While doing physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, her fellow patients inspired her to keep working. One had recovered from a brainstem stroke like hers and now is an ultra-marathon runner. Another was Yvette Pegues,
Ms. Wheelchair USA 2014.

Begun more than 20 years ago by the Dane Foundation, Ms. Wheelchair USA celebrates beauty and self-confidence in women with disabilities through a variety of competitions, including interviews, on-stage presentations and more. After learning more about the organization, Schmid decided to enter.

Though it’s a competition, it’s more about recognizing women with disabilities for their community service rather than glamour, she said. Until the pandemic began, Schmid volunteered with I-58 Mission, Inc., handing out food to the needy every Thursday.

Survivors call it “locked-in” syndrome, where you are able to hear noises around you, but are unable to respond.
It was a nightmare

Schmid at the Shepherd Center

The first time she entered in 2018, she was named Ms. Wheelchair Southeastern USA. The next year, as Ms. Wheelchair Georgia, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA 2019.

“[It was] overwhelming, to say the least, because these pageants don’t have an age requirement, so I was up against 20-somethings,” she said. “As a single mom, it was the greatest thing to win the title. It was overwhelming and great and such an honor.”

The irony of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmid says, is that able-bodied people can understand what it’s like to be disabled. Everyone is shut in, it’s difficult to see doctors and cleaning products are critical. On the other hand, companies are realizing how easy it is to work from home, which is good for those with disabilities or difficult conditions.

But what the pandemic took from Schmid was the pageantry of her reign as Ms. Wheelchair USA. Parades, appearances, speaking engagements—all canceled as the nation was forced to stay home. For the immunocompromised like herself, the risk is too high. And having already handed down her crown to the 2020 winner Dani Rice, it has been a bittersweet summer. But she is no stranger to adversity.

Schmid hopes to be a motivational speaker someday, particularly for young women in similar conditions. If she can motivate someone else, despite her speech issues, perhaps they
can do the same.

With the arrival of the EAGLES program at Auburn, which provides students with developmental disabilities a chance to attend college, she sees an opportunity to be a force for good.

“When people are physically or developmentally disabled, people do judge them by their appearance,” she said. “But they want the same things you do—they want success in life, they want to be involved, they want the opportunity. I would love to help.” She hopes that working with students will spark the return to Auburn she has been craving for years. In the meantime, she continues with physical therapy at home nine hours a week and prepares her son Troy for high school in the fall. Change won’t come overnight, but she is already educating and inspiring others, no matter the circumstances.

“Nothing is forever. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and you may not feel that way right now, but look for it, because it’s there.”