Sitting on Stefanie Schaffer’s kitchen counter are two small feet with model prosthetic legs attached, each about 2 inches tall.
“Those were on her cake,” said Stacey Bender, Schaffer’s mother.
One year after a boat explosion in the Bahamas that left one woman dead, and Schaffer and her mother gravely injured, family and friends gathered in the family’s Rutland home on June 30 to celebrate the anniversary of Schaffer’s miraculous survival.
Schaffer, now 23, said memories of the accident are coming back slowly. She sustained massive injuries in the explosion — many broken bones, spleen and liver damage and kidney failure. She was flown to Nassau, Bahamas, where doctors amputated her lower legs. Then she was airlifted to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she learned what had happened.
“I’ll never forget the day I was told I lost my legs,” she said, explaining she did not believe the news at first. Her mother and stepfather had to tell her several times.
In August, Schaffer was transferred to a hospital in Boston to continue recovery.
“They said, ‘What’s your goal?’ And I said, ‘I want to walk.’
And they were immediately like, ‘Well, OK, you’re going to need to make some smaller goals,’” Schaffer said. “That’s when I think I realized this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”
In Boston, Schaffer received more bad news: She had a spinal cord injury.
“That was probably 100 times worse than finding out I lost my legs,” she said. “There’s just certain things you can’t change with a spinal injury. There’s certain muscles that don’t have the connection anymore, so they don’t work, and there’s nothing I can do to fix that.”
When she returned to Rutland in November, she continued her physical therapy and began to learn how to navigate the world with her prosthetic legs and wheelchair. She said she has found most places accessible.
“The people working wherever you’re trying to go usually find a way to make it work,” she said. “It’s not always perfect but people let you go through kitchens or they give you the closest table so you don’t have to go up a stair.”
Schaffer has also struggled with the right language to use to identify herself and her injuries.
“I didn’t fit in with the amputee community. I still sometimes don’t. I compare my progress to their progress, and it’s so different because of the spinal cord injury,” she said “And I don’t feel like I fit in with the spinal cord injury category because I’m not completely paralyzed. ... I really struggled with not feeling understood.”
One of Schaffer’s coping strategies has been letting herself cry when she needs to.
“I’ve tried to tell myself that when I need to have a bad day, to give myself a break and let myself have a bad day,” she said. “I think the hardest part has been becoming comfortable with who I am now, what I look like now, what my abilities are and what my abilities aren’t.”
Schaffer also relishes the good days, when she makes progress in physical therapy and gets out of the house.
She has been aided in her recovery by Oliver, the golden retriever puppy the family adopted in February after a series of really bad days.
“I had a bad PT session where we found out that my spinal cord injury was more extensive than we thought, and it was completely permanent,” she said. “I came home and I cried nonstop for three days straight, and I got a dog.”
According to Bender, she was nervous about adding a dog to the family on top of taking care of Schaffer and recovering from her own injuries.
“I wasn’t sure how I would help her with the dog while taking care of her. I was nervous about that,” Bender said. “But I don’t think we could live without him now.”
Last week, Schaffer underwent another surgery to further amputate her right leg above the knee, which had been causing her a lot of pain.
“I think that’s the last of the big ones for now,” she said of the surgery. “I’ve thought about plastic surgery for some of my scars but I’ll probably just leave them because I’ve gotten used to them now.”
Rather than plastic surgery, Schaffer got a tattoo — the word “miracle” above her left elbow. She chose that word because of what she heard her doctors say in Florida: “The girl in this room is a miracle.”
“I really shouldn’t have made it back to the United States,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have made it out of the water that day. It is a miracle that I’m alive.”
She is still working toward walking as well, which she believes is achievable with time and effort.
“But then once I do that, I’m going to do more than a couple of steps,” she said. “Every time I accomplish something, I celebrate it for like a minute, and then I’m moving on to — what can I do next?”
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