They came with levels and lumber, hands and hearts to build a pathway for Stefanie Schaffer and her new set of wheels.
Seven people, four trucks and trunk-loads of power tools arrived at the Schaffer-Bender home at 9 a.m. on the first day of December, just days after Schaffer and her family arrived from Boston after approximately five months away at various rehabilitation facilities and hospitals, Stacey Bender said.
“We’re good friends of the family,” said Scott Watelet, one of the volunteer contractors helping to build the ramp. “I got a phone call one hour after the accident.”
After a boat explosion in the Bahamas in June resulted in a double-amputation of both of her legs just below the knee, Schaffer underwent multiple surgeries and rehabilitation sessions to learn how to walk with prosthetics.
Though Schaffer said she hoped to come home on two feet, the spinal cord damage she sustained in the accident and scar tissue in her knees made walking immediately impossible, and Schaffer would need to be carried in and out of the home.
Andy Shaw, general manager at Home Depot, said Schaffer’s stepfather, Paul Bender, called earlier last week to ask if there was any way the company could help the family with materials to build a ramp for Stefanie’s new wheelchair.
“Stefanie’s bills are in the millions,” Bender said in an interview Saturday. “She’s had over 10-plus fractures ... damage to her liver, spleen, kidneys — she was on dialysis for three months ... Just a week ago she had to go in for emergency surgery.”
But Shaw said the company decided they could do better than just donating materials — they donated labor, too, and 10 volunteer builders, employees and friends of the family set to work Saturday morning to build a custom ramp onto the new porch to the rear of the family’s farmhouse on Killington Ave.
“She was coming home Friday, so we wanted to build a ramp this weekend,” said Shaw. “If there’s a person in need, we want to see what we can do.”
Watelet said the volunteers have been helping out since Schaffer’s accident by clearing trees, pouring concrete footings and building a new back porch so Schaffer could get inside, as the front door is only accessible up two sets of stairs.
“By code, handicapped-access ramps have to be at a certain angle,” said family friend and contractor Cliff Aker.
Bender said the family remains incredibly grateful for the monetary donations, volunteerism and support from everyone from J&B Excavating out of Andover, NH, to Cigna Insurance company, who covered the entire cost of Stefanie’s first set of prosthetics, which Bender said cost anywhere from $25,000-$30,000 apiece.
The outpouring of love from her community has been both overwhelming and heartwarming for Schaffer, who said she’s glad to be home but worries about the accessibility of the roads and businesses she used to love to visit, like the Yellow Deli and Brix Wine Bar.
“Everything is accessible in Boston,” Schaffer said. “Ramps are built-in, or they’re portable ... Sugar and Spice is accessible, so that’s good.”
Schaffer’s mother, Stacey Bender, said since the accident Stefanie has been fighting hard to keep her thoughts optimistic and concentrated on the things she wants to do, like travel to France and finish her degree in health sciences at Castleton University, which she hopes to do in five years.
Though she said she hopes to begin some online courses back at CU come January, she’ll also be undergoing more surgeries this winter to try to clear the scar tissue preventing her from bending her knees, and possibly looking at further amputation above her knees.
“Just because I’m home, doesn’t mean it’s the end,” Schaffer said. “It’s hard to not have nurses and staff helping you with every little thing. Everything’s a little bit harder...We’ve got a long way to go.”
Her injuries and experience, Schaffer said, inspired a new focus in her field: Schaffer said she wants to work with other amputees after she completes her degree, for which Schaffer said her advisor told her she may be eligible for internship credits as she participates in physical therapy.
“This is nothing I would have ever considered, but it kind of changes your perspective a little bit ... it’s a completely life-changing thing.” Schaffer said. “There’s just a gap between the medical care you get, and trying to figure out real-life stuff — picking out your prosthetic company, if you have questions to ask them, if it’s a good fit, do you need to get more surgery. There’s just so much you don’t find out in the hospital.”
Throughout her recovery process, Schaffer said she bonded with other amputees, such as the marathon bombing survivors who remain a very tight-knit group and regularly kept in contact with Schaffer, making her home-cooked meals, inviting her to fundraisers and making sure she never feels alone.
But Schaffer’s mind is still set on the future, hopeful that she’ll not only walk, but also hike, run and ski again.
“It’s normal for it not to be a smooth process,” Schaffer said. “If you feel down, it’s okay. You just can’t let yourself stay down for days and days and days.”