L.A. plumbers turn family's pipe dream into reality

For the owners of a Van Nuys plumbing company, a service call evolves into a desire to change a family's life for the better.

David Lazarus

10:24 PM EDT, July 29, 2013


There are plenty of stories about plumbers or other tradespeople ripping people off.

This isn't one of them.

For about 25 years, twin brothers Dave and Jim Schuelke have run a Van Nuys plumbing company that handles pipe problems throughout the region. They have contracts with a number of condo complexes.

In April, Dave — the older of the 44-year-old twins by five minutes — responded to an urgent call from a condominium's homeowners association in Burbank. There was a leak in the building's garage that other plumbers couldn't trace to its source.

Dave arrived on-site and began checking the pipes in the three-story building's various units. He eventually arrived at a condo belonging to Dorothy and John Cothran.

Dorothy, 77, showed him in. In the middle of the living room, Dave saw her son Steve, 50, propped up in a hospital bed. His right leg had been amputated below the knee because of diabetes. In the nearby bedroom was her husband, John, 78, who has Parkinson's disease.

Recalling the moment, Dave told me that he "immediately felt and saw the life stripped out of Dorothy" because of the pressures she faced.

He proceeded with his inspection of the Cothrans' bathroom. He saw an old tub unsuitable for a person with Steve's disability. He saw fixtures that made the room impossible to move about in with a wheelchair or walker.

Dave finished looking around, thanked the Cothrans for their time and left the condo. Standing out in the hallway, Dave said, he felt strangely emotional.

"I knocked on their door again and pulled Dorothy aside," Dave said. "I asked her if my assumptions were correct about her son not being able to use the bathroom."

When I later spoke with Dorothy, she recalled the moment in pretty much the same words. She said she told Dave that the family had to pay for caretakers to visit twice a week to give Steve and John sponge baths.

"That's when Dave asked if I'd like the bathroom remodeled," Dorothy said. "I told him that sounded wonderful, but...."

She started crying as she related the story. She had been about to ask how much something like that would cost.

"Dave told me not to even ask the question," Dorothy recalled amid her tears. "He said it would be free."

Here's where Dave's brother, Jim, enters the story.

"Dave called me up and told me right away to take down the measurements of the bathroom," Jim said. "We were going to make a difference in this family's life."

The brothers obtained the necessary permits for the work. They arranged with their regular suppliers to donate an easily accessible shower, a more modern toilet and a smaller sink and vanity.

They then had as many as 15 of their workers involved in refurbishing, repainting and even redecorating the bathroom. Jim estimated the value of the work at about $20,000.

"We must get a hundred service calls a day," he told me. "This one just captured our hearts."

The Schuelkes made a video that shows how the bathroom looked before and after the work, as well as the Cothrans' reaction when they saw the remodeling for the first time. It might seem self-serving, but it's also quite touching. You can see it on YouTube.

Dave said the most rewarding moment for him was when Steve, using a prosthetic leg, was able to step into the new shower for the first time without any help.

"This was one of those situations in life that was meant to be," Dave said. "It was so obvious that they needed help."

His brother put it like this: "L.A. has been good to us. We just decided it was time for us to start giving back."

Both Schuelkes told me they intended to make similar gestures in the future, and said they hoped their example would inspire other tradespeople to behave likewise.

It's a nice thought. A business obviously can't make a regular habit out of swallowing expensive projects for the good of the community.

But if plumbers, electricians, contractors, mechanics and other skilled workers could find the wherewithal, every so often, to make a difference in someone's life, imagine what a gift that would be.

Heck, imagine the seriously good karma you'd be racking up if you were in a position to assist another person in this way.

There's so much in life that's hard or challenging or unfair. In the grand scheme of things, it takes relatively little to help others get by.

"Things like this just don't happen," Dorothy said. "They especially don't happen to us. The whole thing is like a fairy tale."

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.