Stefanie Schaffer is ready to start the next chapter in her story.
The 23-year-old Rutland resident graduated from Castleton University last month with a degree in health promotion. While for most people her age that news might be underwhelming, for Schaffer it’s a remarkable milestone.
In June 2018, Schaffer, her mother Stacey Bender and several other family members were involved in a tour-boat explosion while vacationing in the Bahamas. Schaffer and Bender were injured. Another woman, from Atlanta, Georgia, died.
Schaffer sustained major, life-altering injuries. Doctors amputated both her legs above the knees. Her recovery was complicated by additional injuries to her brain and spinal cord.
Earlier in 2018, Schaffer had transferred from Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina to Castleton to finish her final year in Vermont before the accident upended her plans.
Doctors told her to take a year to recover before attempting to return to school.
“Realizing I couldn’t go back to school was one of the biggest blows,” Schaffer said in an interview this week. “It felt like another thing being taken from me.”
Once Schaffer was ready to return to school, her faculty adviser Katy Culpo was there to get her back on track.
“I told her, ‘We need to get you to the finish line. You’re too close,’” Culpo said.
Culpo, an associate professor in the Department of Health, Human Movement & Sport and coordinator of health education programs at Castleton, helped Schaffer design a work plan that would be manageable. That included taking online classes, carrying a smaller course load, and completing her internship at the hospital while still in recovery.
Culpo visited Schaffer at home weekly to check in and provide guidance.
“Getting back to that was like getting back to my normal self and getting my life back,” Schaffer said. “There was so much I couldn’t do. Doing that one, big thing just made me feel back to me again.”
Culpo is modest about the role she played in helping Schaffer complete her degree.
“She had the focus and determination,” Culpo said. “She experienced a life-changing event ... and conquered it and moved forward with a smile, kindness and hope.”
Culpo said Schaffer’s health-promotion degree provides a broad range of career options, including job opportunities in nonprofits, community health organizations and government.
Schaffer got a taste of that line of work when she served as ambassador for the Gift of Life Marathon last month. GOLM organizer Steve Costello recruited Schaffer to raise community awareness of the annual Red Cross blood drive held around the Rutland area.
“It fit perfectly,” Schaffer said, adding that she had considered internships at the Red Cross earlier in college. “It’s kind of funny how everything’s worked out.”
“She was a joy to work with,” he said. “She faces everything with bravery and energy.”
In addition to the blood drive, Costello, who is also a vice president at Green Mountain Power, invited Schaffer to speak to GMP staff around the state. “She grabbed people’s attention. ... She can connect with anybody.”
Costello said Schaffer’s “got a story to tell, and she tells it well.”
And, Schaffer is doing just that. She is currently working on a book about her experience with local author Yvonne Daley. Schaffer said while she is doing most of the writing herself, she has asked family and friends to help fill in the gaps she doesn’t remember. She said the story will also offer advice for safely traveling abroad.
Costello, who is a former reporter and editor for the Herald and Times Argus, said Schaffer “has incredible writing skills.”
Aside from the book and a few forthcoming speaking events, Schaffer said she plans to take time to focus on her recovery and ongoing physical therapy now that college is behind her.
She said she’s also been getting into adaptive sports. “I just started cross-country skiing, which I really like and want to keep doing.” She said she was excited to start swimming and cycling in the spring.
When asked if she plans to stay in Rutland, she said she will — “at least for a while.”
“This community has been so great and my family’s all here, so I can’t really picture leaving here anytime soon,” she said.
Costello hopes she sticks around, too. “She’s exactly the type of person we need here.”