Four years ago, Stefanie Schaffer’s life nearly ended in a boat explosion in the Bahamas. Another passenger was killed, and Schaffer suffered injuries commonly seen on battlefields. Doctors gave her a 50% chance of survival, and told her she would never walk again.

They were wrong.

Her recovery could be called a rebirth, as the 22-year-old Rutland woman found strength, poise and power she never dreamed she had, and before the community’s eyes, reinvented herself in a dramatically changed body.

She became a powerful speaker and advocate for blood donations and people with disabilities, a model and a promoter of the belief that love, grit and determination can overcome any problem. She learned to love herself for the first time.

In her new book “Without Any Warning,” through intimate and honest writing, Schaffer tells a moving story about the power of love.

Rutland Town resident Steve Costello recently sat down with Schaffer to talk. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Costello: You paint a somewhat unflattering picture of who you were, as far as self-confidence and ambition, prior to the incident. How would you describe yourself at age 22, and how does that contrast with who you are at 26?

Schaffer: At age 22, I wouldn’t be doing anything that I’ve been doing now. I was very shy and I kind of kept to myself and the people I was comfortable with, family and a small group of friends. I was not outgoing, didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone at all, and I think that held me back a lot.

The things that are important to me now were important to me then: I spent a lot of time with my family, I spent a lot of time outside exercising, but now I feel like a totally different person, because the things that scared me then still don’t come naturally to me, but I now can at least push myself to try them.

C: You not only faced the trauma of your injuries, but a dramatically different body following the explosion and your recovery. How has this changed your thoughts about identity and appearances?

S: I think the way I saw myself before is how I would say most people do. I think it’s engrained in us to be very critical of ourselves ... No matter how good we think we look, we’re always wishing one tiny thing was different. I think that my view of beauty changed, so it was more about feeling healthy and about my personality than my actual physical appearance … and just being able to appreciate the things I do like about myself.

C: The way you write about your disdain for your first prosthetic feet is comical, and your frustration with using a wheelchair is clear throughout the book. How do you feel about your new legs now, and how has your relationship with the wheelchair changed?

S: My prosthetics now are so much better than the first ones I had. I know that now, no matter how much I had grown to accept what happened to me, I would always have hated those. (She laughs.) They were clumsy and stiff and uncomfortable. But I have gotten used to the image of myself with prosthetics and I appreciate what they allow me to do, and in a lot of ways I really do like how they look now.

The wheelchair, I have a much better relationship with now. It doesn’t even cross my mind anymore. Sometimes it will hit me if I am somewhere if I can’t get in, but that’s more of an accessibility issue, but before, I wouldn’t even sit in my wheelchair. I wouldn’t let anyone take a picture of me in it. I would go to a restaurant, and I would transfer over to a seat, and I would have them put it in a closet or something so I wouldn’t have to look at it. (She laughs.) Now it’s just comfortable, and I don’t think about it; it’s just what gets me around.

C: When did you first think ‘What do I do with myself now? What’s my future going to be career-wise and life-wise?’

S: It was immediate. There would be phases that I wouldn’t think about it, but that thought came very frequently and it was very immediate. While I was doing speech therapy, I kept trying to get back on track to get into college courses, and they kept telling me I wasn’t ready, so I think it was right away, it was ‘How do I get back to the goals I had before’ and then it was ‘How do I have a career, what type of job can I still do?’

C: What did you think you’d be doing now, and when did you start thinking that you could have a career as a speaker or a model, or did all of that just kind of fall into your lap?

S: (She laughs.) All that stuff just fell into my lap! I did the one speech at the Rutland Chamber of Commerce event, and it was nothing I would ever have planned myself, but I wanted to thank the community, and then I realized I had a story that I wanted to keep sharing. And the modeling also just appeared out of nowhere, with an agent reaching out to me, so I think I have been really lucky with opportunities arising. Before, I was always unsure of what I wanted to do.

C: I remember that first speech, and I know you were terrified. Today you’re speaking to big audiences, companies’ entire workforces, on national stages, your photo is in online catalogs and ads. I don’t want to read too much into it, but it almost seems like the ability to speak about it, that it’s a freeing experience.

S: Definitely. (She pauses, thinking.) I think it gave meaning to everything that happened to me. It made it seem like it had some purpose.

It’s allowed me to connect with new people, and that has added so much to my life. All this bad stuff happened, but look all the people I’ve gotten to meet, and the stories of their own that they’re telling me, and the places I’ve gotten to go for these speeches. I think it just makes a lot of it worth it.

I don’t think you can go through something like this and try to keep it inside; when you don’t make any progress is when you just keep it to yourself. So the speeches are just one way for me to keep telling the story and getting it out from just being in my thoughts alone.

C: You just said that almost as if you are glad this happened. I know you’re not glad, but do you think you’re a better person as a result?

S: Uhm-hmm! (She smiles broadly.) I think in many ways I am glad that this happened, which sounds terrible.

Of course, I miss a lot about my old life. I miss the health that I had and the ease of that life, that I had taken for granted. I, of course, wish my family and others affected hadn’t had to go through it, especially my little sister.

But in a lot of ways, I am glad that it did happen to me, because it forced me to change into someone that I didn’t even know I could become, and I think about everything that I’ve gained from it now, and I try to picture life without those people and those things and those experiences, and I can’t really even picture it anymore.

C: There is a powerful passage in the book where you write about being told you’d never walk again, and your anger over a caregiver’s disconnect with your clear ambition to prove that notion wrong. How did you get it in your head that you would walk, despite being told that it wasn’t in the cards?

S: I think it was because my diagnosis of being a paraplegic was delayed. The signs would have obviously been more noticeable if I hadn’t lost my legs as well. On top of being in a coma and the kidney failure being so severe, there was just no way to get that diagnosis.

So, for a very long time, I was just an amputee, and I was surrounding myself with other amputees who were coming to visit, and I was talking with my doctors about prosthetic legs, so I had that image of being able to get the legs and just start walking again. So, when they were telling me that wasn’t going to happen, I think I had that image for so long that I was just able to keep holding on to it.

C: I want to ask you about something I’ve heard you mention briefly, and that’s the perception of your injuries. You don’t want to be seen simply as an amputee or a paraplegic, of course — you’re a whole person. But does it frustrate you that people don’t understand the paralysis issue?

S: At the beginning, yes, it made me very, almost angry. I think because I never lost full movement of what was left of my legs, I didn’t have the typical image of paralysis that people picture. I didn’t even know that people who are paralyzed could still have some movement, so I had to learn a new definition of it, but it was very frustrating, and it made me very insecure to be constantly worrying about what people were thinking, worrying that they were thinking that I just wasn’t working hard enough.

There are all these amputees who do amazing things, and I know that, and I was constantly comparing myself to that, and I worried that other people were too, without realizing how much more there was to my issues.

C: And despite that, now you are riding a bike and skiing and swimming. What did it feel like the first time you did each of those things in your new life?

S: Biking was my favorite to begin with, because it had been so long since I had moved at all, and I got on the bike, and it was different, but I could move quickly and actually get a workout in that was different than physical therapy, which was focusing on improvement and goals.

This was just enjoying myself and not thinking, and so that felt like a glimpse into my future, but also a glimpse back to who I had been before, because I felt athletic again and strong again. Skiing I fell in love with right away. I just loved it.

C: Like many people your age, you mention some key things you still want in life: to date, marriage, children. How has your experience with your family affected your view of wanting that broader life for yourself?

S: The first thing that comes to mind is a pretty sad moment. I was in the hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it was just my mom and my sister and my nurse, Steph, who I write about in the book, and I think it was during a time when I was having a lot of swelling and scarring with my residual limbs, and I said something really sarcastic like, ‘Well, it’s a good thing I never really wanted to get married in the first place.’

That had never even been true, but I was trying to deflect from it, I think, and it definitely broke my mom’s heart and my nurse’s heart to hear me say that. (Her voice cracks.) For a while I thought that marriage was impossible.

When I got home, it changed from thinking it was impossible to then being like ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to get married because I’m never going to be able to take care of myself, and I’m never going to be OK,’ feeling for the first time this rush on it, and then feeling at peace again afterwards, like when it happens it happens. I don’t doubt it will happen for me anymore.

C: How has your concept of love changed, or what was important to you as far as love?

S: I think it was seeing how selfless it could be, particularly how my family could put so much that they needed for themselves to the side just to take care of me. And friendship too — that definition of love changed with friends, seeing that it was more about who we are than what we can offer each other. I had changed as far as things I could do, but the friendship and love were still there, and I saw how selfless love could be.

C: Your mom, stepfather, and dad, along with your sister and some family friends, are featured prominently in your story. They are heroes. But beyond the physical actions they took that helped save your life, how important was their love for you and the love of your brother in your not only surviving, but thriving in this new life you created?

S: It was everything to me. My sister came to the hospital every weekend, as a young kid, putting away sleepovers and things she wanted to do just to come watch me vomit for the weekend. (She laughs.)

I clung to those visits for dear life. Every week, I was like, ‘I just have to get to Friday,’ and every Friday she would come, and it would make everything better. I think the times I was struggling with my self image, it was people like my mom and my sister who initially helped me feel beautiful again. They loved me for how I looked now, so I should do that for myself too.

C: How important was the way the community rallied around you, for example Mark Alderman getting you a car and volunteers building you a ramp?

S: Coming home, it felt almost impossible to survive, and we had great support, and if we hadn’t had that, my family and I wouldn’t have made it through like we have. It’s hard for a family to get through this without tearing each other apart or people leaving or just not making it through as one. There were times when the community was able to take some of the stress off us. That was when things were really bad, and that was what helped us the most.

C: In a sentence or two, what’s the message of the book and your life?

S: The message of the book would be that no matter what happens to us, if we surround ourselves with the right people and we remember what’s important, that we’re going to heal and move on, and life is still going to be good.

I think the message of my life has just been carefully choosing to live my life more purposefully. Instead of letting outside facts influence a day, it’s more like looking at the big picture and being purposeful in how I spend my time and the things I want to do and being able to always look ahead instead of at what might be going on right in that moment.

Steve Costello, of Rutland Town, is a former Rutland Herald editor and reporter. This is the first in an occasional series of long-form interviews.

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