The strength to persevere

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
Tyler Schrenk. Photo: Stephen Brashear Tyler Schrenk. Photo: Stephen Brashear

After a devastating injury, Tyler Schrenk found hope through new friendships, faith and technology

Tyler Schrenk’s life changed forever one cold day in February 2012 when he made the kind of goofy bet that 26-year-old guys sometimes make. He and a friend were playing putt-putt golf near Juanita Beach in Kirkland, and their wager wasn’t monetary.

“My losing end of the bet was I had to go jump in the lake,” explained Schrenk, who lost the round. “And so I ran across the street, and I jumped in the lake, and I dove headfirst, and it happened to be really shallow, so … yup.”

He broke his neck, and in that moment he lost a lot — not just the ability to move his limbs, but also his whole lifestyle and his sense of hope and direction.

Before the accident, Schrenk’s life largely revolved around physical activity. He worked the night shift at Costco, stocking shelves, and did construction work on the side. For fun, he said, “I liked to snowboard, golf, play basketball, exercise — just liked to stay real active, hang out with my friends and just really enjoy life to its fullest.”

Suddenly, with one unlucky dive, all of that was gone, forever.

‘No idea what was going on’

Schrenk woke up in a daze at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. “I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “I couldn’t tell what was a dream and what wasn’t.” He spent the next seven months in the hospital, slowly figuring out what was going on, slowly recovering from pneumonia, slowly learning what little he could still do with his paralyzed body — and all the time suffering from depression.

One source of hope during those dark days was a Catholic hospital chaplain whom he often saw walking past his door. Schrenk wasn’t Catholic — he wasn’t religious at all, really — but one day the chaplain stopped in to say hi anyway, and the two struck up a friendship. “He and I became very close,” Schrenk said. The chaplain’s kindness and generosity made Schrenk curious about his faith.

“I always considered myself someone who believed in God,” Schrenk said, but he’d never felt a close connection with God. “I felt distant throughout my life.”

Eventually he told the chaplain he was interested in learning more about Catholicism. So when Schrenk got out of the hospital and moved home with his dad in Bothell, the chaplain contacted St. Brendan Parish nearby to see if there was anyone who could visit him.

Tyler Schrenk and José BlakeleyDeacon José Blakeley sometimes tries out his Sunday homilies during Saturday meetings with Tyler Schrenk. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Why are you Catholic?’

There was. Pastoral associate Linda Haptonstall visited Schrenk a few times then introduced him to parishioner José Blakeley, who had just been ordained a deacon on Oct. 27, 2012, and was eager to find ways to serve others outside of Mass.

“They hit it off right away,” Haptonstall said. A shared love of sports was the key. Deacon Blakeley started visiting Schrenk on Saturdays. They’d hang out, chat, maybe watch a game. The deacon wasn’t there to evangelize or catechize — he was actually under the impression that Schrenk was Catholic. “But I was willing to offer friendship,” he said.

Their friendship grew, and one day Schrenk asked, “José, why are you Catholic?”

“And I shared with him my beliefs and why I felt that the Catholic Church was the church that Jesus founded and had been developing over 2,000 years,” Deacon Blakeley said. “And he was interested, and he asked me questions, and I tried to answer them.”

They started watching Father Robert Barron’s 10-part Catholicism DVD series. “We’d watch one chapter every meeting we had,” Deacon Blakeley said, “and then he would have questions about things and we would discuss these questions. And so that went by and we continued to talk about sports and faith.”

Eventually Schrenk decided that he wanted to be baptized. To prepare, Deacon Blakeley told him he should read sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But that was a problem, because Schrenk had no way to read books — how could he turn the pages, even of an e-book?

‘A beautiful event’

Deacon Blakeley, who has been a software engineer at Microsoft since 1994, saw that Schrenk needed a computer with good speech recognition and voice command capabilities. After doing some research, he was surprised to find the solution right under his nose: a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet. Over the course of a few weeks, he helped set Schrenk up with technology that not only enabled him to read — it changed his life.

“It’s helped me become much more engaged and involved,” Schrenk said. “I could start playing fantasy football with my friends, I could start emailing people, I can browse the Internet — things I wasn’t able to do before.” He’s also started taking online courses at Cascadia Community College, with hopes of eventually getting into the computer programming field.

With the help of Deacon Blakeley, Haptonstall and his new technology, Schrenk prepared to be received into the Catholic Church in the summer of 2013. Since getting to church was prohibitively difficult for him back then, St. Brendan’s got permission to celebrate the baptism in his house, where he also received the sacraments of first Communion and the anointing of the sick.

“That was a beautiful event,” Deacon Blakeley said. “I had the privilege of Tyler being the first person I baptized as a deacon.” After his baptism, Schrenk continued his formation and was confirmed by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain at St. Brendan’s last spring.

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‘God gives me the tools’

After a lifetime of feeling distant from God, Schrenk is thankful for the sense of intimacy he’s found through his Catholic faith. He prays regularly for God’s blessing on the family members and friends who have supported him since his injury.

“I really appreciate being able to find a relationship with God, because I really do feel that he’s given me the strength to persevere and get to where I am at today,” he said. “I feel it would have been much more difficult without God in my life to just be able to persevere and get to a better place, because I am at a better place than three months or six months after my injury.”

The transformation wrought in Schrenk by the liberating forces of faith, friendship and technology is remarkable, said Haptonstall. “I’ve seen Tyler progress from a young man who … really wasn’t interested in anything and was depressed, to a young man now who’s taken life by the horns, so to speak,” she said.

Schrenk agrees. “I feel God gives me the tools so that when I need to rise above something, I’m able to do that,” he said. “I think everyone is given these opportunities to either make the best of a situation or choose not to, and I chose to move on and make the best out of my life.”