Amber Schutz places a bag full of pie ingredients in the backseat of her Toyota and her small dog, named Mila, in the front.
She plugs her phone into the aux cord and chooses a song. A couple minutes later, she’s heading out on the short trip to visit her great-grandma.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving and they’re baking pies together. The weather is nice — chilly, but the sun is shining.
Schutz is excited to spend time with her family, and as she turns southbound on 143rd Street East, near Harry, Mila realizes where they’re heading. Her tail wags in anticipation as she moves to Schutz’s lap.
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She drives south, and a nearby neighborhood is approaching on the right. Another car is stopped in the northbound lane. The driver waits for Schutz to pass so he can turn.
Behind him, a truck barrels down the road.
Then all of the sudden, everything starts to hurt.
Her right leg is throbbing and her back is in excruciating pain. Schutz looks down and sees Mila by her feet. Her airbag is deployed and the radio compartment is now on her center console.
Mila is barely moving.
People start banging on her window and her door isn’t opening. They break the glass. Her phone is lodged arms-deep in the dashboard.
The hood and engine of her car is smashed to the dashboard. Her right leg is broken in multiple places.
The pain is settling in, and her vision goes white. She screams that she can’t see. People start shouting at her to open the door, but she’s trapped.
Then her leg goes numb. She worries that she might be paralyzed. She looks down again — blood is coming out of Mila’s snout.
The paramedics are there. Somehow, she’s able to give them her mom’s number, then her dad’s. Her mom is just a few minutes away at her great-grandma’s house.
Then she is screaming again. They place her on a stretcher and everything hurts more. Her right foot dangles unnaturally off the edge.
Where is Mila.
Paramedics are putting Schutz in the ambulance as her mom arrives. She shouts at her mom.
Grab Mila and go to the vet.
Mila doesn’t survive.
In a second, Amber Schutz’s life is changed forever.
She was hit head-on by a car that had been pushed into her lane after being rear-ended by another driver.
That driver was texting, she said police told her.
But her injuries, ranging from minor to extremely serious and life-changing, are nothing compared to the death of her best friend.
Now, the college senior has to learn how to live without the independence she just gained after transferring to Manhattan for school.
Schutz, 21, started classes at Wichita State University three years ago to get a nursing degree. She made the WSU cheerleading squad and decided to stay in Wichita for a couple years.
But the rest of her friends went to Manhattan or Lawrence right after high school, which made it hard for Schutz to start over.
“A month into school, I just realized I had no friends,” she said.
So she took to Craigslist and found a sweet teacup “yorkeepoo.” Originally wanting a male dog to name Milo, Schutz fell in love with the female and named her Mila — pronounced MY-la. Her roommate adopted Mila’s sister.
Schutz and Mila formed an unbreakable bond — and Mila was eventually registered as an emotional support dog to help Schutz through depression and anxiety.
“She was her best friend,” Schutz’s mom, Shelly Schutz, said about Mila.
Schutz took Mila with her everywhere — including dates.
“I told (my boyfriend) she had to approve him,” she said, laughing.
And when she decided to move to Manhattan to finish her degree at Kansas State University, Schutz took Mila with her.
“What really hurts”
Amber and Shelly Schutz talked about the wreck from Schutz’s parent’s house two weeks and a day after the crash. The house smelled like cinnamon rolls, a dinner request from Schutz, her mom said. The family’s dachshund mix, Yoda, sniffed the new visitors before returning to his spot near the front window.
Schutz had been able to put on makeup for the first time since the wreck, but her face was still sore and showed signs of bruising. Her right leg was dressed in a large cast, her toes covered with a fuzzy sock. She moved slowly, having to use a walker. Attached to one of the handles was a bag full of medication.
A metal brace wrapped around her stomach and back. Her leg has two plates and 10 screws in it.
When asked about Mila, Schutz looked down at her hands, paused, then reached for a tissue.
“I can heal from anything after this,” she said of her injuries. “But, the loss of Mila is what really hurts.”
She has good memories of Mila. Like how they went to Fetch Bistro the day before the accident to check out Chef Gordon Ramsay’s renovations. Or how they celebrated Mila’s third birthday with a big bone shaped like a wine glass — after all, she was 21 in dog years. Mila loved living in Manhattan, chasing squirrels, kisses on ears and car rides.
“She helped me through a lot,” Schutz said.
She is, of course, heartbroken about Mila’s death. But she’s also angry. And motivated.
She went on Facebook the day after her wreck and she wrote a public message. Though she had been living off a diet of pain pills and hospital food, Schutz’s message was clear.
“As a lesson to all of you … please, please, PLEASE don’t text and drive,” Schutz wrote. “You may think that one small text won’t do much damage, but for me I almost lost my life. Unfortunately, my little puppy had to suffer the consequences of that man’s actions.”
Her post was shared more than 370 times.
“Nothing is so important that a text can’t wait,” she said the following week. “Your text shouldn’t be more important than my life, or my dog’s life. I lost my best friend and it’s not fair. Now my dog’s ashes are in a box on my table.”
Schutz hopes her story — and Mila’s death — will get drivers to think twice before picking up their phones. Her friends, she said, have apologized that her pain needed to be their lesson.
After massive amounts of hard work, Schutz was accepted into WSU’s nursing program for the upcoming spring semester and is supposed to start classes Jan. 15. But right now, she doesn’t know how she’ll work through this first semester back. She’s already been told she might need to reapply for the program.
For a woman who wants to spend her life helping others in her position, she learned a lot from being on the other side.
“It opened my eyes to be more empathetic to (patients) and not to just look at them as if they’re something on a to-do list,” she said.
One of her nurses, she said, showed her an example of the type of caretaker she wants to be. Her future in the nursing program might be disrupted, but she’s determined.
“If I can make it through this, I can get through nursing school,” she said. “It’s just a matter of juggling doctors appointments, surgeries, classes and meetings. It’s just going to be chaotic.”
On top of that, she relies 100 percent on her family for help. She had to move back home.
“I lost all independence,” she said. “My dignity just went out the door. In therapy, every time I had to use my walker, I just bawled. I can’t go to the bathroom alone.”
Everything she valued about herself shattered in that crash.
“Being active, my dog, my independence,” she said. “It’s the little things I miss a lot. I can’t even stretch like I used to.”
She’s done cheering now.
“That was my good leg,” she said. “I won’t be stunting or flipping anymore. My back and heart will never be the same.”
As Schutz began to list what she lost, Shelly Schutz reminded her daughter of something important.
“You’re here,” she said. “I really believe Mila saved your life.”
Schutz was later told that the wreck could have been worse, but Mila possibly took the brunt of her airbag’s impact.
“I was so close to leaving her at home,” Schutz said. “I don’t know if she saved my life. Maybe she did. I hope, that after all this, for her to end up dying, I hope it was to save my life.”