SALISBURY — When they slept, Paul’s right hand always settled on Lee’s chest, just over her heart.
“That’s how he held me at night,” she says.
Lee Schaefer can’t forget that touch, or the way Paul could cook. She enjoyed watching him play with her 6-year-old daughter, Myranda, and their son, 5-month-old Blake.
He was “The Snake Hunter,” the wrestler in high school and the guy who knew his way around both a kitchen and construction site.
She depended on him.
Lee, 32, thought of all these things those 10 days she stayed at Rowan Regional Medical Center around the clock, waiting for Paul to snap back.
Standing beside his bed in the intensive care unit. Lee spoke to her husband. She hugged him and, a couple of times, she swore he was trying to communicate with her.
“Your eyes can play tricks on you, if you want it bad enough,” Lee says.
For herself and from the doctors, she asked for 10 days — a week and a long weekend — just to see if the swelling in his brain would go down and his head would miraculously reboot.
“She wanted to make sure she gave him every chance there was,” says Paul’s best friend, Ben Dimeglio.
But the CT scans never improved and the time came when the ventilator had to be shut down, and Lee said goodbye.
“He was a fighter,” she says. “He was my rock.”
Paul Schaefer Jr. was only 38.
• • •
While Paul was in the hospital, Lee retrieved a couple of sheets of paper and some paint and took a hand print of her husband.
After Paul died, a tattoo-artist friend replicated that hand print on Lee’s chest in the exact spot where she knew it should be.
All those years of cooking had burned the tips of his fingers off, Lee says, smiling.
The tattoo artist also added Paul’s handwritten signature, copied from the Schaefers’ marriage license.
• • •
The couple had met about three years ago, when Paul was working as the kitchen manager at Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon. Lee had signed on as a waitress.
“I was not a good waitress at all,” she says, recalling how she quit after three weeks.
But Paul came to her rescue one day when her car broke down. He invited her to a dinner at Bangkok Gardens, because they both liked sushi, and they started dating after that dinner, then moved in together and married.
“Paul was always funny — he’d come out with the wittiest things,” Lee says. “… And he had more energy than I did when I was 16.”
Both had been married before. Paul’s 16-year-old son, Cody, lives in Rockwell with his mother. Lee shares custody of Myranda with her first husband.
• • •
The Schaefers’ last “real” day together was a beautiful one, Lee remembers.
They enjoyed a barbecue with friends. Paul tossed a Frisbee with Myranda, while he was running around with Blake strapped to him.
Before calling it a day, they cooked marshmallows, made gooey over the fire.
Lee’s 16-year-old sister, Michaela, stayed with them that night at the house they were renting in Covington Heights near Woodleaf.
• • •
For about three weeks, Paul had been complaining off and on about heartburn. He started taking some over-the-counter heartburn medicine.
Sometimes when he would lie down, Lee says, Paul felt as though he were losing his breath.
The night of Aug. 5, after Blake was sleeping, Paul sat up on the edge of the bed, remembering that he had forgotten to take his pills.
The next thing Lee heard was Paul falling face first into the bed. She knew immediately he was in trouble, rolled him to the floor and started her own version of CPR, regularly compressing his chest.
She yelled for Michaela to call 911 and just kept pushing and hoping, urging Paul to talk to her. But he was gasping for breath and, only once or twice, moaned in pain.
Lee kept going with her compressions until the first and second waves of emergency response people could arrive.
They shocked Paul twice with a defibrillator while he was still in the couple’s bedroom.
“I was kneeling at the door, praying to God to bring Paul back to me,” Lee says.
She learned later that Paul’s family had some history with heart problems.
That night his heart quit, robbing him of blood flow to the brain for too long.
During those next 10 days, Lee showered and slept at the hospital. Early on, doctors at Rowan Regional Medical Center put him into a hypothermic coma for 48 hours.
By cooling down the body — Paul’s body temperature was taken way down — doctors were trying to slow his metabolism and decrease the brain’s demand for blood flow. Hypothermia tries to protect the brain cells from damage, a problem after the kind of sudden clinical death Paul must have experienced.
“Lee has been stronger than I ever imagined and is still so true to her love for Paul,” says Lauren Malnar, who once worked with Paul at Lone Star.
“She was dealt a lot with this situation and has handled it with admirable strength.”
Malnar says telling Paul goodbye as he was going off life support and visiting those days leading up to that moment were hard, but she personally found peace.
“He was way too young,” Malnar says. “… He was so good to everyone who knew him.”
• • •
Schaefer started working at College Barbecue as a 14-year-old and was a fixture at the restaurant for many years.
Dimeglio, Paul’s friend, first met Schaefer about 10 years ago when Schaefer was looking for work in construction. Dimeglio hired him for his subcontracting business. Their projects included houses in the Lake Norman area, commercial and institutional buildings in the region and even North Lake Mall in Charlotte.
Dimeglio put Schaefer in charge of the job that meant hanging 400 commercial doors and hardware — $5 million in materials — at the Northlake Mall.
Schaefer was ambitious and a quick study.
“We just hit it off,” Dimeglio says.
Schaefer often took on the hardest tasks.
Snakes always seemed to find him — or he found them — on the job sites. And Dimeglio soon learned what a great cook Schaefer was.
Schaefer cooked for about 150 people for Dimeglio’s daughter’s third birthday party.
The men stayed friends, even as Schaefer found a job with Texas Roadhouse, then Lone Star six years ago.
“I will always remember his laugh,” Malnar says, “and how he always sent me to get him a Monster energy drink because they were his favorites.”
Schaefer lost his job at Lone Star just before the restaurant closed in Salisbury earlier this year.
He was on unemployment at the time of his death.
• • •
Lee Schaefer is finding things extremely difficult financially.
With their new baby, Paul didn’t want her to work. But he didn’t have health or life insurance.
The couple had outstanding debts. Lee has a car payment, and she also is having to move out of the Covington Heights rental house by the end of August because she can’t pay the rent.
Family members are not in a good position to help, though Lee’s stepmother and father and her ex-husband assisted in paying for Paul’s cremation.
Lee asked that any memorials for Paul go to Lyerly’s Funeral Home for his funeral expenses.
Dimeglio has been staying in town, trying to help. He and Paul had decided that Paul was going to join him in Dayton, Ohio, where Dimeglio is finishing up some construction jobs before both of their families would relocate to Orlando, Fla.
Dimeglio says he has a line on several hotel renovation jobs in Orlando.
“It was going to put some challenge back into our lives,” he adds.
Friends raised more than $500 this past weekend by selling donated items at the Webb Road Flea Market. They hope to continue that effort and take more donations in coming weekends.
On Aug. 30, East Coast Wings will donate 10 percent of a table’s bill, if they mention the Schaefer family. And Nana’s Nook in Wallace Commons also has helped tremendously, Lee says.
• • •
When she talked to him in the hospital, Lee Schaefer told her husband not to be scared, that everything would be fine.
For now, she’s keeping all of his ashes, in hopes hers can be mixed with his some day after she dies.
In the living room, Lee spreads out many of the photographs showing Paul with young Blake.
“That’s what I’m going to miss the most, watching my boys play,” Lee says.
The tattoo over Lee Schaefer’s heart is still healing.
She’s not sure the hole in her heart ever will.
A memorial service for Paul Schaefer Jr. will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Main Street Baptist Church in China Grove.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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