Woman who lost her legs in explosion remembers her ‘miracle’
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — After a tourist boat exploded beneath Stefanie Schaffer’s seat, mangling her legs, she lay in a hospital bed wondering whether she would ever walk again. But before she surrendered to despair, her doctors unknowingly inspired her.
“Every day when the trauma team would do their rounds, I would hear them outside my door,” said Schaffer, 22, about her stay at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. “And they’d say, ‘The girl in this room is a miracle.’ And it just made me feel grateful to be alive for a couple of minutes each day.”
On the back of the Rutland, Vt. college student’s left arm is a tattoo.
“Miracle,” it says.
On June 30, Schaffer, her mother Stacey Bender, 51, stepfather Paul Bender, 56, and sister Brooke Schaffer, 13, were vacationing in Exuma, in the Bahamas. They were in a tour boat on their way to see pigs that swim in the sea.
But, “five minutes into it, the boat exploded right under my seat,” Schaffer said. “Both of my legs were broken beyond repair,” leading to amputations below her knees.
Her other injuries included compound fractures of her left arm and right wrist; a broken left femur; broken pelvic bones; a broken back and lacerations to her kidneys, liver and spleen. Both her lungs had filled with blood. And she underwent dialysis for three months.
Her family was also hurt in the explosion that day.
Stacy Bender had a broken left leg and right ankle; fractured right wrist, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and internal injuries similar to Stefanie’s but not as severe, she said.
Brooke Schaffer was knocked out for a little while and Paul Bender was thrown to the front of the boat; the back of his head was cut open, requiring stitches.
Also aboard the boat was Maleka Grimes Jackson of Tennessee, who was killed in the explosion. Her husband Tyran Jackson survived, and like Schaffer and her family, was flown to South Florida and treated at a Broward Health hospital.
Recently, at the end of the Schaffer-Bender family’s weeklong vacation in Key Largo, they stopped at Broward Health in Fort Lauderdale.
Stefanie Schaffer wanted to “meet the doctors that had really saved my life that I wasn’t really conscious to meet. My parents got to know them but I never really got the chance to thank them. I really just wanted to show them what they’ve given me the opportunity to achieve.
“Because without them, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Some of Schaffer’s former caregivers, including R.N. Rafael Toloza, who has a daughter the same age as Schaffer, and Dr. Christopher Roberts, a neurosurgeon, were brought to tears at the sight of her.
Roberts had performed a fusion procedure on Schaffer’s spine, and also took away bone fragments from the lower portion of her spinal cord, which is stabilized with titanium rods and screws.
He greeted her with a hug, and a warning not to go snowboarding just yet.
“But we’ll get there,” Roberts told her.
“A lot of times we fix patients and that’s it,” he said. “Occasionally you’ll get a card from another state or another country. But to actually see someone that you touched like this and walking like that, nobody warned me about that. It was a hell of a surprise.”
Her doctors’ confidence in Schaffer’s recovery, which seemed long and far away for her battered body during those six weeks last summer, helped her to power through another 16 weeks of treatment in two different Boston hospitals.
In all, she has had more than 25 surgeries, and still has 20 doctors who are helping with everything from scar management to physical therapy and pain from the prostheses that she began walking with in November, her parents said.
While in treatment in Boston, Schaffer was visited by survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, in which three people were killed and more than 200 injured. Some of those amputees taught her to look to the future.
“All the time I thought (why me?) in the beginning,” Schaffer said. “But one of the Boston bombing victims said when you go through something like this, you can’t just keep thinking ‘why did this happen?’ and ‘why me?’ because then you’re just stuck in it. So I tried to stop asking that question.”
Schaffer doesn’t hide her artificial limbs or evidence of her injuries. And for the hospital visit, she chose a short sundress and cute sandals to wear. The toes of her prosthetic feet were painted a light blue — because they were boring before, she said.
“When I first got hurt, I thought I would never be able to show my prosthetics,” Schaffer said. “I thought I would never wear shorts again, never wear a bathing suit again, never wear a dress again.”
When she was a patient at Broward Health last summer, “even if it was 85 degrees out I would cover myself with blankets and I’d go sweat outside and I would refuse to take it off.
“But now, I mean I’m in a dress showing my prosthetics,” she said. “I think realizing how much work it takes (to walk with them) makes me more proud to wear them. So people can just understand maybe what I’ve gone through a little bit. I’m just not embarrassed by it anymore.”
For the pretty, petite brunette, what others may think of her appearance is no longer important.
“Even before I got the prosthetics, I would go around with no legs and covered in scars,” Schaffer said. “I knew people were staring but it just didn’t really bother me anymore. And that would have just killed me before the accident.”
As Schaffer masters using her new legs, she said she is realizing how hard it is to do.
“I can’t feel the ground when I am walking,” she said. Where her legs meet the devices, there is pain and the skin breaks down. There are fitting issues, and she has phantom limb pain. And her back hurts if she spends too much time in her wheelchair.
“Your whole body has to be strong just to stand up,” Schaffer said. “When I first started I couldn’t hold myself up, even with parallel bars and a harness. Now I can hold myself up without holding on to anything. But that took a long time.”
Schaffer wants to finish her final year at Castleton University in Vermont, where she is majoring in public health. She wants to earn a master’s degree in the same subject, and eventually work with people who have disabilities.
She isn’t dating, and said, “I never really dated before the accident, either. It’s a possibility. We’ll see.”
Learning to drive with hand controls is also on her to do list.
To those who survive life-altering injuries that require extensive rehabilitation, she said, “The most important part is to stay motivated. Even when it feels like it’s not gonna get any better.
“The medical staff can do their part, but the rest is on you,” she said. “And you have to keep going to therapy and you have to keep pushing yourself hard. Because if you don’t, you never know where you’re gonna get to.”
Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/