On the final morning of a weekend getaway in January to Phoenix, Marcos Schaumberg woke up coughing blood. Schaumberg was diagnosed in an emergency room with a paralyzed left diaphragm and a rare fungal infection in his lungs.
The timing couldn’t have been worse: It had only been two weeks since his grandfather, Tico Guerra, died of pneumonia and just a couple of months before the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in New Mexico.
Needless to say, Schaumberg said, “It’s been quite a year.”
Schaumberg, a rescue technician with the Santa Fe Fire Department, has spent the past six months at home, preparing for an out-of-state surgery at the end of this month that will revive his lungs and diaphragm.
After being away from work for nearly all of 2020, Schaumberg said, he hopes he can heal quickly and return to doing what he loves the most: serving the Santa Fe community as a firefighter.
“It gives you a feeling of satisfaction, of worth, that I know I’m going to work to help other people,” he said. “I miss that feeling.
“Right now I’m just stuck at home and I’m not able to be of assistance to anyone,” he added, noting it’s been difficult to know his friends and colleagues are “still out there doing this and I’m not able to help. That’s what weighs the heaviest on me.”
Schaumberg, who enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking, motorcycling and spending time outdoors, said that until his diagnosis, he felt like any other healthy 27-year-old. Even in December, when he coughed up a little bit of blood and started experiencing shortness of breath, he wasn’t too concerned.
“I’ve never really been sick much my whole life,” he said. “I thought I had a normal cold or something I’d get over.”
Still, he saw a local pulmonologist and planned to go to a follow-up appointment in March. When his symptoms worsened a month later while he was in Phoenix — this time the blood was “much more severe” — he knew he needed more immediate care.
Schaumberg was hospitalized for five days in Arizona, where doctors ran tests that determined he had contracted valley fever, a fungal infection that affects about 150,000 people in the U.S. each year, as well as a paralyzed diaphragm that caused one of his lungs to collapse.
Since then, Schaumberg has been taking anti-fungal medications and antibiotics to cure the valley fever, which is contracted from spores in the soil. Schaumberg said “there’s no way to pinpoint when or where” he contracted the infection, although he said it likely was last summer, while he was deployed to wildfires across the state.
Once the fungal infection has cleared — it typically takes six months — it will be safe to undergo surgery. Schaumberg said he’ll have a CT scan next week to make sure the infection has cleared enough for doctors to safely operate.
If so, he plans to fly to New Jersey with his parents, Mark Schaumberg and Nichol Larranaga, and his fiancée, Janelle Ortega, at the end of the month to undergo nerve graft surgery. The procedure will involve removing and harvesting a nerve from his left leg that will then be inserted into his neck, ultimately repairing the damaged nerve that’s caused his diaphragm to undergo paralysis.
Following the operation, he will spend another five days in the hospital for recovery and monitoring. Before returning to Rio Rancho, he will have a final check-in to remove drain tubes from his neck.
Once he’s home, “it could be two years before it’s 100 percent again,” he said.
The best-case scenario is that he would return to work sometime in September or October.
Schaumberg, born and raised in Santa Fe, worked on the Atalaya Wildland Fire Hand Crew when he was 18 years old. At 19, he joined the fire academy as a firefighter, and four years later, he became a rescue technician.
Since his January diagnosis, Schaumberg said, other firefighters have reached out on a daily basis to check on him.
They organized an auction and raffle drawing to help pay for the out-of-state surgery, which is not covered by insurance. The auction runs this weekend, followed by a June 19 drawing for various prizes. Anyone who donates $100 to a GoFundMe campaign for Schaumberg is automatically entered into the drawing.
David Broshious, a fellow rescue technician with the fire department and close friend of Schaumberg’s, said he and his wife started brainstorming the fundraising event a while back. As word got out, “it grew organically from there,” he said.
Broshious said it’s important the public understands just how valuable Schaumberg is to the Santa Fe area.
“He’s done countless things behind the scenes that people don’t get to see every day, just like all the firefighters in our department,” Broshious said, noting he and Schaumberg responded to the February 2019 car crash that killed Dominic Archuleta and his 9-year-old son, Jeremiah Archuleta.
“We show up on the worst day of citizens’ lives and we perform to the best of our abilities and make what I think is a true impact on the community,” Broshious said. “Marcos is part of that. … Getting him back is going to be the positive for the community.”
For Schaumberg, encouragement from folks like Broshious is what helps him stay positive during this time of great uncertainty. “They’ve been super supportive. They’re a big reason I’m really wanting to get better and get healthy and get back to work,” Schaumberg said. “It really is [like a family]. We call it a brotherhood. The way I’ve been treated and helped, I never would have imagined getting as much help as I have.”
Schaumberg said his firefighter family also is responsible for researching medical facilities and finding Dr. Matthew Kaufman — “the only surgeon in the nation who specializes in this exact surgery,” Schaumberg said, noting there is no facility in New Mexico that does this type of operation.
“I figure something like this is worth taking the extra time to travel for,” he said. “My career and the rest of my life is hinging on this, so it’s a big deal.”
In the meantime, Schaumberg said, he’s staying at home, riding out the COVID-19 pandemic — something he said has allowed him more time to reflect and be grateful for the blessings in his life.
“It’s completely changed my perspective on appreciating everything, the little things in life that you normally overlook,” he said. “I’m trying to take the positive out of all of this.
“Just don’t take your health for granted,” he added. “Don’t take something as simple as breathing for granted.”