Dillons Manager Inspires Others With Positive Message After Personal Tragedy

Steve Martinez with horse

by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor

Having a bad day?

Meet Steve Martinez.

The Dillons store manager in Wichita, Kan., shares his remarkable personal story about nearly dying to illustrate to others the power of gratitude, faith and hope. It is a message Steve Martinez has taken to churches, members of the military, nonprofit groups like Goodwill Industries, and corporations, including New York Life. He also has shared his story at meetings held by The Kroger Co., the parent company of Dillons.

Just another day

The event that changed his life began on a routine day for Steve and his wife, Linda. They were in the car on their way to the Dillons in Wichita at 37th and Woodlawn, where they both work.

“All of the sudden, I got these chills,” Steve said. “Unbelievable chills.”

His jaw shook; his whole body shivered. Linda turned the heater up to its highest setting. It got so hot inside the car that she had to put her head out the window just to breathe.

He suffered for 10 minutes—“which is actually a very long time for you to be in severe pain,” he said—and then the chills and pain subsided.

A self-described “Hispanic macho man,” Steve wouldn’t take Linda’s advice and go the hospital. Instead he went to work at the store, where the pain and chills quickly returned. Linda took him to Wesley Medical Center, but the pain ­subsided again. Then, just as the doctor was prepared to ­release Steve, it returned.

Within four hours, Steve was in a coma.

“It happened so fast,” Linda said.

Steve remembers being taken upstairs from the emergency room, but not much else after that. Once in a hospital room, his body began to shut down. As he was rushed to intensive care, Linda was left wondering what was happening to her husband.

Finally, she was told that Steve had contracted E. coli and was in septic shock, which is usually attributed to bacteria that gets into the bloodstream. Every organ in his body was infected.

The second day in the hospital, Steve’s feet, hands, nose, tongue and ears were turning black as his blood failed to properly circulate. His fever hit an incredible and often lethal 107˚. His blood pressure plummeted.

On the third day, Linda was told that her husband would be gone from this world by noon.

The doctor, one of eight caring for Steve, told her that nothing could save him.

A mysterious man appears

Noon came and went, and though he was still alive, Steve’s vital signs continued to worsen. Linda called the family to come and be with him.

“Have faith,” a nurse said as she hugged Linda. “Doctors don’t know everything. Have faith.”

Linda prayed—“not that God would save my life,” Steve said. “But that He would give her the strength to deal with whatever happened.”

Linda and the couple’s daughter were at Steve’s bedside. More family members were on their way to the hospital.

At about 10 minutes to midnight, medical staff at the ­hospital began disconnecting the equipment that was keeping Steve alive.

Linda said that’s when a man with a white beard came in, asked what they were doing and told them to stop and hook everything back up. He claimed to be Steve’s family doctor.

Getting blank stares from the staff, the man with the white beard repeated his order, this time a bit more sternly. When they began putting everything back in place, the “doctor” turned and walked out of the room.

At around 2 a.m., Linda saw that Steve’s blood pressure was climbing. His fever had dropped to 103 degrees.

Around 2:30 a.m., a doctor making the rounds came in the room. Linda told him what was happening, certain that Steve was getting better. But the doctor told her that people often “spike” before they die. The doctor also told her to think about what Steve’s quality of life would be if he did survive.

His hands, feet and legs were black. The doctor said he’d lose those. And with the 107˚ fever, the doctor guaranteed her that Steve would have brain damage.

Linda was devastated, but she understood.

About a week later, another doctor talked to Linda about the amputations that were now necessary. She signed off on the procedures, and Steve was transferred to another hospital. That’s when he really started to get better.

“Nobody knows how, but when I got to the other hospital, my body turned on—on its own,” Steve said. “Every organ in my body turned on. When I got there, I never got hooked up to life support. Everything was functioning. The circulation started back up in my nose and my ears and my tongue and most of my hands—just not the fingers.”

About two weeks later, Steve woke up.

The ‘luckiest man in the world’

His weight had dropped to 138 pounds. His hands were bandaged. He wanted to know what had happened. Had he been in a car accident?

Linda told him the whole story.

“It was shocking,” Steve said. “Actually, it was about three days later before I could comprehend things.”

Once it sunk in how close he’d come to dying and what was ahead of him, he “didn’t feel bad,” he said. “I felt empowered.”

Steve made it a mission to find the white-bearded doctor, but no one at the hospital knew anyone who fit that description. He asked the hospital to check their records. No such doctor had signed in that night.

He asked his wife and daughter to describe the man, but they couldn’t really remember anything about him, just the white beard.

Steve had to have skin grafts because blisters had popped up on his arms and knees. He had more than 700 staples ­holding his skin together.

The doctor who previously had told Linda he would be dead by noon came to see him. He said Steve was a miracle, and that he would be talking about his case for the rest of his life.

Another doctor, the surgeon, came to explain the rehabilitation he would need.

“He asked how I was doing,” Steve said.

The doctor didn’t buy it when he said he was doing fine. He persisted, asking, “How’s the ­depression?”

Steve’s response was, “I don’t have any depression, sir. I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

The doctor said Steve was in denial and prescribed ­medication. He would not be permitted to leave the hospital until he admitted to having depression.

“I said, ‘OK. I’m depressed,’” Steve said. “But I don’t want your pills. When I need them, I will let you know.”

At Our Lady of Lourdes (now Via Christi Rehabilitation Center), recovery was an 8-to-5 job, Steve said. But that wasn’t enough for him. He took equipment back to his room. He worked out to speed his rehabilitation. For him, physical ­therapy would be something he did seven days a week.

“I worked hard,” he said. “I wanted to come back to what I was.”

Defying gravity

When he got his new legs, the macho man cried.

“I cried because I got to walk again,” he said. “That was amazing.”

Less than a year after he returned to work, Steve “ran” a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K as a crew from a local television station trained ­cameras on him.

“Well, I didn’t really ‘run’ it,” Steve said. “When the camera stopped, I stopped. I said, ‘Oh, my, I’m tired.’”

The television crew filmed him again at the end of the race, and when he was given a copy of the video, the instrumental “Chariots of Fire” had been dubbed in to play as he crossed the finish line.

The story on the evening news reached people Steve never met. It brought the mother of a military veteran to visit with Steve. He was at the store when she found him and asked if he was the person on television. Her son had lost a leg while serving in Iraq. He’d stopped going out, hanging out with friends and began believing that a girl could never like someone like him.

But he saw that piece on the news about Steve, and yelled to his mother to come look. The man with no legs was running, and he told her that he could do that, too.

The woman just wanted to hug the man who’d so moved and inspired her son.

“By example, I was able to motivate someone,” Steve said. “But that’s the way we all are. The things we do that we don’t realize other people see us do, they’re actually teaching others, motivating others. At your job, the way you do it, the attitude, the desire and motivation you have motivates others,” Steve said. “You don’t have to actually talk to them.”

Steve, of course, had to get used to those new legs. They gave him an opportunity a grown man would never expect: to grow taller.

“When I was in rehab, the prosthetic people came in to see me, and they said, ‘Mr. Martinez, this is our procedure. Your belly button is the center of gravity. What we’re going to do is make you two inches shorter. The shorter you are to the ground, the better you can walk.’

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m 5’8”; they’re going to make me 5’6”.’”

“They asked, ‘So how tall were you before the accident?’

“I said, ‘6’2”.’”

Today, he’s 6’1”.

He believes in taking control of the life you’re given.

“Doctors and everybody else do everything based on ­averages,” he said. “The average person needs this, the ­average person needs that. Every one of us is an individual. My abilities, your abilities, your desire for success or to move forward are different.”

Well, Steve knew he wanted to be taller.

“One day I was telling my prosthetic guy, ‘Mike, when are you going to give me my other inch? I’m only six-foot-one. I used to be six-foot-two.”

Another person on staff heard him, and, explaining that she teaches a class at Wichita State University, declared that if they’d made him as tall as he was before, he wouldn’t be able to walk.

“They didn’t know I’d gained seven inches,” Steve said.

Dillons spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie knows Steve and has worked with him on several projects.

“It was funny, because most of the time I wear heels,” Lowrie said. “Now, he always jokes that he’s taller than me. He says, ‘Hey, look at me! I grew! I’m taller than you now.’

“He would joke with me that when he starts running, he can’t stop, so grab him. No brakes,” Lowrie said, laughing. “When you think you’re having a bad day, Steve can always cheer you right up.”

Soon, he will get new mechanical fingers, too, as soon as the prosthetics are debugged and ready.

A ‘happier life’

Members of the rehabilitation center staff were amazed by Steve’s recovery. They were so impressed with him that they called upon him to help other people who weren’t doing as well.

Steve Martinez at deskIn about five months, Steve was back on the job. When a vendor came up to him and told him how sorry he was to hear what had happened, Steve told him not to be sorry.

“I have a happier life,” he said. “Let me ask you this: When was the last time you celebrated that you could comb your hair or brush your teeth, throw on a pair of pants, a pair of socks, put on a belt or tie a shoe? I’d done those things all my life, and I lost them. I lost the ability to do every bit of that. I rejoice now for everything I do. I rejoice.

“Before I was injured, I was a taker,” Steve said. “I took things. I wanted things. I wanted this and that. Since my injury, I’m a giver.”

Now churches, businesses, civic organizations and nonprofits ask him to come share his story. He recently gave a presentation at McConnell Air Force Base and was handed a special coin—the memorial coins are never really “presented,” they are exchanged in a handshake—by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Nicholl R. Dial, commander of the 22d Force Support Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base. The squadron is responsible for all the morale, welfare, recreation (MWR), child and youth, food, fitness, lodging, personnel, education and family support needs of the base.

Col. Dial met Steve at a Goodwill Industries event and invited him to share his story with the squadron. He spoke to them at the Thanksgiving Potluck celebration.

Col. Dial said later in a letter to Dillons that members of her squadron still talk about Steve’s presentation, especially his “three pillars of success,” and are seeking ways to instill them in their own lives.

Those pillars are compassion, forgiveness and thankfulness.

“A real, true leader has to be able to feel their pain and help them out,” Steve said. “Because then they’re going to come and want to work for you.”

The squadron has adopted both Steve and Linda.

Steve went to California to speak to breast cancer survivors. One woman talked to him after that presentation about having to have her breasts removed. She was concerned about what she would look like afterward, whether she would be ugly and feel not whole or complete.

“I pulled up my sleeves and said, ‘See my scars? To me, they’re beautiful.’ This is God’s way of saying the wound has healed. The pain is gone. And let me tell you something about beauty,” Steve said. “Beauty is not what man has made it to be. It’s not the clothes you wear, the way you wear your hair, your superficial façade. Beauty is what’s inside you.”

Beauty is his wife, Linda, he said, the woman who would not leave his side, who bathed him, clothed him and who got so good at wrapping his bandages that she was teaching nurses how to do it.

“To me, she’s the most beautiful lady in the world,” he said.

There are more examples of people sharing their pain with Steve. A 24-year-old woman had a lump behind her knee that was diagnosed as cancer. She went into surgery to have it removed and woke up to find that her leg had been amputated. It devastated the young wife and mother, but the worst was yet to come. The day she got home after rehabilitation, her husband handed her his wedding band and left, saying he couldn’t “deal with it.”

She told Steve she’d thought about just ending it all.

“How dare you,” Steve told her. “Get off the pity wagon. Don’t you realize that we are this way for a reason? Don’t be a weak person. Do you want your kids to remember you as a failure? Think about your children. When they grow up, you’re going to be their hero. You’re going to be the person they can look to and say, ‘She overcame this adversity.’”

For two weeks, he didn’t hear from the young woman. When he did, she had a prosthetic leg and a new attitude. She had decided that her husband didn’t deserve her. Her children were everything to her, she told Steve, and he’d helped her realize that.

Three pillars of success

Steve and Linda live on a ranch with horses, and he struggles a bit when tending to them, but otherwise he hasn’t really changed, Linda said. He’s always been a kind person, and employees at the store “adore” him.

When he first got out of the hospital, he was in a wheelchair. Linda would take him to work to drop him off.

“There would be his associates outside, helping me with his wheelchair, getting into the store,” she said. “Everybody is amazing. They just love him.”

The only thing that has changed when it comes to the way he manages the store is he doesn’t get around quite as quickly. Otherwise, he’s still Steve.

“I’ve never considered myself a store manager,” he said. “I consider myself a people manager. I manage people, not a store. They manage the store. They do the work.

“Do you know how many decisions a store manager makes a day? They make up to 700 decisions, 500 to 700 decisions a day. Of those, they only had to make 200.

“Do you know how many decisions I make a day? One. What I’m going to eat for lunch.”

And he has never asked why, even before he nearly died.

“Say you’re working for me,” he said. “You build a display and I look it and say, ‘Why’d you do it this way?’ You’re going to become defensive and do one of two things—you’re going to tell me what I want to hear or you’re going to tell me a lie.”

Instead, he asks about the process, what it was the associate was trying to accomplish, and then he offer suggestions and asks what they think. Then comes the “how.”

“I keep talking to them until I finally get out of them what I want,” he said. “And then I tell them, ‘Well, why don’t you go ahead and do that?’ or first I ask them, ‘When can you fix it?’ or ‘When can you change it?’ I let them set the timeframe.

“The key to that is that I come back and follow up. Then I do one of two things: we’ll continue to talk about it or I thank them.

“The word ‘why’ has been totally eliminated from my ­vocabulary.”

The industry ‘can learn from Steve’s style’

The Rev. Jeff Gannon, senior pastor at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, didn’t really know Steve personally, but he knew that the manager at the Dillons—a very friendly, very efficient store, he said—where he shops was ­absent. He asked where he had gone. Employees were ­reluctant to fill him in on the details, and appropriately so, Gannon said, and would only share that Steve was very ill. He continued to inquire month after month only to be told that Steve was still on medical leave.

When he did come back, about five months after the initial symptoms appeared, Gannon approached Steve and asked what had been going on.

Then the reverend asked him to share his story with the Chapel Hill congregation.

“Our people were just astounded,” Gannon said. “The interesting thing is, we now have several parishioners who go past three or four different Dillons to get to that Dillons because of the fact that he came and shared that story.

“When people are engaged with the public, people respond to that,” Gannon said. “So now people will go up to him in the store and say, ‘Mr. Martinez, you came to our church on such and so date and I just wanted to come and thank you for sharing.’ Well, that’s just our congregation.”

Gannon then encouraged colleagues to have Steve come share his story at their churches.

“I’ve lost track of how many congregations he’s spoken to,” Gannon said. “But the beautiful thing is, it’s not just about going to churches. He goes to all kinds of groups and gives them encouragement.”

Gannon said if a hospital has a patient who is depressed and ready to give up, they ask Steve to come—and he does.

“One of my parishioners, a nurse in the burn unit, said to me, ‘I need to get hold of Mr. Martinez because I have a ­patient who is struggling with depression,’” Gannon said. “I got them connected and Steve went up to the hospital and she told me later that he really helped, because he understands.”

He understands people.

“The one thing that I hope—and I told Steve I was going to tell you this—is that every manager and executive that reads this in the grocery industry will realize that being a good manager is not just being able to run an efficient store,” Gannon said. “Two things I want to share with you about Steve; one is that when you walk into his store, you know that he cares about you as a person, not just as a customer. And so for managers that are reading this, or for employees, Steve has set the tone that ‘we’re in the business of taking care of people. And when we take care of people, they’ll be good customers.’ That’s true, isn’t it?”

A crew from a local television program working on a ­separate story about Steve interviewed employees at his store, asking why they liked working for him.

“And they said, ‘because he does not micromanage us. He honors our dignity by asking us a genuine question of how you would solve this problem,’ and then he empowers them to come up with the solutions,” Gannon said. “So when they were doing the story on his experience of being hospitalized and near death…(the employees) really struggled with it because of the fact that he’s clearly the manager. They know at the end of the day that he cares about them as a person. So he and his wife decided that on Thanksgiving Day they would give the other managers the day off and he would work.

“It’s no wonder that the store just keeps getting busier and busier,” Gannon said. “I really think that in the industry they can learn from Steve’s style.”

What he won’t do

Steve, who is Catholic, said he will not tone down the religious aspect of his story.

“I do these presentations everywhere, but I can’t take my beliefs out,” he said. “I don’t tell anybody that it was an angel from God that helped me that night. I give them the facts. The facts are a doctor came into my room and nobody’s ever seen him again.

“My obligation to my church was one hour, one day a week, because I was too busy with everything else. Now, it’s 24/7 because now I appreciate things. I don’t ask God for favors. I thank God for everything he’s done and thank Him every day for what He does.”

When he wakes up each morning, Steve tells himself that it will be a great day.

“Nobody can take a great day away from me, because the only person who can is me,” he said.

What some would call a tragedy has given Steve new perspective.

“It doesn’t matter if you are five minutes old or 100 years old. There’s no guarantee everybody’s going to see you tomorrow. So, what would you do if I told you today that you had two weeks left? How would you live?” he said. “So I tell people, ‘Forget about the past. You’ve got to plan for the future, but don’t spend so much time planning that you forget today. You’ve got to enjoy today. You’ve got to really count your blessings and be happy for everything you’ve got.”

When people try to pay him for his presentations, he gives the money back.

“I don’t do this for the money. I do this from the heart,” he said. “This isn’t a job. This is my way of saying that I am the luckiest man in the world, that I get to go out and help others.”

Find more photos here.



About The Author

A former newspaper editor and publisher who has handled digital duties for The Shelby Report since 2011. She once enjoyed leisurely perusing the grocery store aisles but, since having a baby in 2016, is now an enthusiastic click-and-collect shopper.