Drum & Drummer

Valley jazz musician Rob Schuh pounded skins, pumped iron, shot steroids, went to prison and almost died. Now the feisty trapsman has added an organ to his repertoire -- a transplanted kidney.

When he got back to Phoenix, his local doctor refused to prescribe the painkiller. But Schuh says he had become hooked on the medication, and couldn't cope with the condition without it.

He began falsifying prescriptions by making fraudulent phone calls to drug stores. On March 12, 1994, he got busted, and was convicted of attempting to obtain dangerous drugs by fraud or deceit. He received three years' probation. The prescription charge also violated his federal probation, and he was put under house arrest by federal authorities.

Schuh says by 1997 he was sinking into a deep clinical depression. Six years of going through dialysis -- four and a half hours a day, three days a week -- had worn him down. He'd also come close to dying on the operating table, he says, when a doctor had cracked his ribs open to do a lung biopsy and discovered a rare lung fungus. Apparently, his renal failure had devastated his immune system.

Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.
Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.
Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.
Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.

Schuh was also depressed because his band couldn't get any solid gigs. He began sleeping all the time and lost weight at an alarming pace.

He began falsifying prescriptions again, this time for Valium. But this time, he wouldn't slide by with probation. He was sentenced to five months in a federal penitentiary.

The U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, has been something of a magnet for high-profile criminals over the years. White-collar Wall Street types mix with Mafia bosses and political prisoners. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more eclectic bunch of inmates in any federal prison than in Springfield, once dubbed "the hospital for defective delinquents."

Springfield is where John Gotti had his cancer surgery last year. It's where Robert Stroud -- the legendary Birdman of Alcatraz -- and Colombo crime boss Alphonse Persico died. It's home to Native American activist Leonard Peltier and terrorist Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. It's where former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and porn publisher Larry Flynt were sent for medical care.

All the prisoners there have health problems that require medical attention that they couldn't receive elsewhere.

Schuh was sent to Springfield because it was the only prison in the United States that could provide dialysis treatment. "If I'd been healthy, they would have sent me out to a country club, a minimum-security place," he says. "But because I had the bad kidney, they sent me to this maximum-security place.

"Springfield is one of the most frightening places on the planet. You have a gene pool there that's so shallow that it's frightening. I think three-quarters of the people in that prison, their parents were brother and sister."

Though he was in bad physical shape, Schuh's drumming ability was still sufficiently impressive to win him respect in prison.

"We talked to one of the recreation guys about signing up to use the music room," he says. "There was this scumbag asshole who was walking around with sticks talking about how great he was. So he heard me say I played drums, and he came up to me and said, 'Hey, motherfucker. Let's hear you play.'

"So I sat down and just played some typical drum shit, but it was light-years ahead of whatever he could have done. So five minutes later, he was on his knees ready to blow me. He said, 'Hey, man, can you teach me?' It was one of those weird buzz things, where you get respect in there for stupid things."

It wasn't long before his prison stay took a grisly turn. Schuh's feet had started hurting him, so the medical staff gave him aspirin. But aspirin often causes problems for dialysis patients, because they have trouble excreting it. In Schuh's case, it burned a hole in his stomach.

A specialist at the penitentiary discovered a bleeding ulcer. He took Schuh to the hospital that night and cauterized the ulcer. Hospital records indicate that the next day, while on dialysis back at the penitentiary, Schuh was given heparin, an anti-clotting medication regularly used on dialysis patients. But because of Schuh's ulcer, heparin was the wrong treatment for him.

"It can cause bleeding for people with potential bleeding sites," says Dr. Doug Chang, who has treated Schuh for the last three years. "Typically, after surgery, particularly interabdominal surgery like that, we probably wouldn't even use heparin for a series of treatments after that."

By that afternoon, Schuh had lost so much blood that he was experiencing severe heart pains. He believes that emergency stomach surgery saved his life. A crooked scar runs down the middle of his stomach from the procedure.

Schuh says he recuperated from the surgery with his legs shackled to the hospital bed. He couldn't eat without bending over in pain for hours. He dropped to 122 pounds. He says the bones in his face were sticking out so far that he couldn't shave without cutting himself.

Schuh was released from the federal prison medical center in May 1998. When he got back to Phoenix, more legal troubles awaited him.

The state wanted to pursue charges against him in connection with his second fraudulent prescription bust. In their pre-sentence report, prosecutors suggested that Schuh had caused his own kidney problems through steroid abuse, and that his sentence should therefore be increased.

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