A Life Irrevocably Changed
By Jeanne LaSargeBono
Family, Community Play Key Role in Recovery for Jason Schecterle
“I was responding ‘lights and sirens’ to an emergency call and was stopped at a traffic light,” Jason Schechterle recalls. He describes the event as part of an average, ordinary day in his life as a Phoenix, Arizona, police officer. “There was a taxicab driver nearby who had suddenly suffered a seizure, and lost control of his cab,” he explains, “and he just happened to be heading toward the same intersection where I was parked.” The cab hurtled through the intersection at more than 100 miles per hour, striking Jason’s patrol car—the car exploded, consuming the car and Jason in flames. In seconds, Jason’s life was irrevocably changed.
“There are so many ways to look at it; from one perspective, it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. But in many respects he considers the circumstances of his event as fortunate.
Looking back on the circumstances that just happened to save his life on that evening more than 15 years ago, Jason explains, “There just happened to be a firetruck at the same intersection when my vehicle was struck. They saw the accident unfold in front of them and were able to immediately respond and extricate me from the car. And I just happened to be injured at a location that is just minutes from one of the best burn centers in the country—the Arizona Burn Center at Maricopa Medical Center.”
The Challenge of Healing
Jason suffered third- and fourth-degree burn injuries to more than 43% of his body, the majority to his neck, head, face, arms, and thighs. He spent the next 2½ months in a medically induced coma at the burn center, fighting for his life. He admits that when he awoke he was so sick that he could not fully comprehend the extent of his own injuries.
“Not only was I seriously ill, burn-injured, and struggling for my life,” says Jason, “but I was also blind as a result of the injuries.” Jason describes in a matter-of-fact manner that the challenge of healing from the pain and trauma of his injuries was one of the most difficult things he had ever encountered—but he quietly admits that the most difficult challenge was dealing with the fact that he was 100% blind.
“I was dealing with both the emotional and physical challenges of waking up and discovering that I was suddenly blind. As you can imagine, that had its own unique challenges,” he recalls. “And on top of that, I knew I had extensive injuries to my face and head—but I didn’t really realize how drastically the injuries had altered my appearance.”
An Outpouring of Support
It is here that Jason pauses and recounts, “I know I had a unique experience while I was hospitalized that most burn patients do not experience.” Jason explains that because he was a police officer, he and his family received overwhelming support during his hospitalization. “My family had constant support from my fellow officers, from the firefighters that had responded on the scene, and from the Arizona Burn Foundation. The outpouring of community and media support my story received was incredible. But I also recognize and respect that not every burn survivor or family will have that same level of support. I am mindful of the fact that another burn survivor may have their story on the news for one night. But from there, the patient may be alone in the burn center and the family may be alone in the hospital corridors to handle the crisis, day after day.”
Changes to the Rhythm of a Family
Although the hospital corridors were filled nearly 24/7 with the presence of his colleagues and members of the local community, Jason acknowledges that his wife, Suzie, struggled with the crisis and often felt isolated and alone with the overwhelming responsibilities that his medical care required.
“I can share that based on our conversations months after, there is truth to the saying ‘It is easier to go through a crisis yourself than to watch someone you love go through it,’” Jason says. “A lot of significant medical decisions fell on her; when the doctors had to discuss amputations, she had to process that information and make the decisions alone. When the doctors offered the treatment of Integra [a bi-layer matrix wound dressing] on my neck and face, she had to process that information and make the decision alone. The one person she really wanted to talk to and discuss the options with was me. And I was unconscious and unable to help. I couldn’t be there to offer my own opinions and certainly couldn’t help make any of the decisions that affected me. It was all on her—and she will tell you, that was one of the most difficult parts of the entire crisis.”
Jason also shares the story of his children, daughter Kiley, who was 7, and son Zane, who was 3. “In addition to handling my medical care, Suzie had to manage the kids and tell them that their dad had been hurt in a crash at work—this was another one of the most difficult moments she had to manage alone. Although my daughter was 7 years old at the time of my injury, she was pretty mature for her age and was able to comprehend fairly well that I had been hurt and had extensive injuries. Early on during my hospitalization Kiley was allowed to visit the burn unit. She wasn’t inside the room, but she was able to observe me from the corridor window—so she was able to grasp the seriousness of the situation and yet know that it was me, and I was still there.”
Zane, on the other hand was only 3 and was too young to comprehend his dad’s accident and injuries. The entire dynamics of the household were thrown off as Suzie struggled to be at Jason’s side as he recovered at the hospital, while trying to maintain a sense of stability and normalcy at home for their children.
After 5 months at the burn center, Jason was transferred to an in-patient rehabilitation center where he received intensive physical therapy. He had to re-learn the most basic functions—to walk, to eat, to dress. After nearly 6 months, Jason was finally discharged and returned home. The community outreach continued to be extensive and he received positive support and acceptance with every step of his recovery. “The community was amazing—the support was so reaffirming,” Jason says, “but behind closed doors at home, as you can imagine, the challenges we faced together as a family were quite another matter.”
“When I got home, there were layers of challenges for the entire family to handle,” recalls Jason. “I had the challenges of healing, dealing with pain, bandage changes, and some of the most basic human functions. I was blind and had lost half my fingers. I couldn’t tie my own tie, much less help out with some of the responsibilities of the household.”
Additionally, Jason’s wife had to manage the nearly fulltime job of Jason’s extensive medical care, “Suzie had to manage bandage changes, my appointments, helping me with any of my daily tasks, and manage the kids. Any one of those were full-time jobs by themselves—and she was handling all of it. As a result of the demands of his recovery, Jason’s wife quit her job to be his primary caregiver. “We both had to jump into what life had handed us with both feet and accept what came with it. We had to deal with all those fears of the unknown… how to provide for the family without our jobs, how I would recover and come out of it…and how our family would get through it and still be a family,” says Jason.
Jason and Suzie were also challenged with how to manage their children’s varying levels of comprehension and ensuing response to the accident, the disruption in their home, and the dramatic altered physical appearance of their dad. Kiley was initially intimidated by having a father who was so terribly injured.
“When I got home, you have to remember that I was horribly disfigured. I no longer looked like the dad that had left for work those months ago,” explains Jason. “Although my daughter understood the gravity of the situation, she really didn’t know how to act or how to behave. She wasn’t sure how close she could get, how affectionate she could be—how tight or where she could hug. But she was strong and resilient, and she would follow my or my wife’s lead so she could learn how to touch, hug, and interact with me and all the wounds and bandages.”
On the other hand, Zane had an entirely different reaction. “One of the hardest things I had to deal with upon my return home was my son’s reaction to me,” recalls Jason. Because his physical appearance was so drastically altered, Jason’s son no longer recognized him.
“Zane was terrified of me. If he was brought into the room with me, he would cry and say, ‘You’re not my dad.’” Jason’s voice breaks as he recalled the words, and he pauses, saying, “It was actually very stressful for all of us. I can easily rationalize why a child would have the reaction that he did. It was entirely age-appropriate. But it tore my heart out. He simply could not accept that this guy with the disfigured face and bandages everywhere, was still me.”
As Jason endured multiple surgeries and struggled to recover his skills, function, and sight, the family continued to navigate their way through the changes in the family rhythms.
A Turning Point
“I will always remember where the turning point was for Zane,” Jason recalls. It was months later as the Christmas holiday season approached, he explains. At a community Christmas tree festival pre-decorated themed trees were auctioned, including one dedicated to first responders, which featured the local police department and its officers. Instead of a star, Jason’s picture had been placed at the top. “Someone anonymously bought that tree at auction and later that night had the tree delivered to my house. We set the tree up, and it remained up in the house through the entire holiday season,” Jason recalls. On the day the tree was taken down, the picture of Jason came loose from the top, floated down, and landed on the table. “Zane was standing nearby. He picked it up, studied it for minute, and carried it over to me, saying, ‘Hey, Dad, this is you.’ That was the breakthrough,” Jason says reflectively, “and I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live.” From that moment forward, the family was back on track and moving forward with their lives together.
Another Big Leap
The public and social reintegration was another step toward healing for Jason and his family. “My public reintegration wasn’t a gradual process where I had the time or opportunity to practice how to deal with the public’s reaction to my appearance and scars—or even my interpretation of their reaction. Instead, my public appearances went from 0 to 60,” Jason explains. For the first 9 months following his injury, Jason did not go out in public. As he healed and continued his therapy, his sight also gradually returned. And the outpouring of community support remained steadfast.
In January 2002 the Olympic torch made its way across the United States and through the nearby community. Jason was invited to serve as an Olympic torch carrier. “I accepted the opportunity to participate in the torch run—knowing that it would put me in front of the whole world,” Jason explains. He acknowledges that he was apprehensive and unsure what to expect from the public’s reaction to his appearance. “I just went out there and gave the torch run my best,” he says enthusiastically.
“It was 9 months since my injury, and I got to pass the Olympic torch on to Curt Schilling [pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were the 2001 Major League Baseball World Series champions]! It was a very big deal. The public reaction was just incredible…people were very accepting and compassionate. I was overwhelmed and incredibly humbled by the reception I received from the public that day.”
The requests for public appearances continued, and Jason experienced other big moments—he was invited to throw out the first pitch in a Major League Baseball game and he was invited to meet then-President of the United States George W. Bush. “Again, at that time there was overwhelming public support for first responders serving the public and suffering line-of-duty injuries or death. So, did I practice a gradual, or cautious social reentry? No. I anticipated some level of community support, but you really don’t know and you really can’t be sure of reactions; it was just another big leap, both feet in—and take what comes with it.”
Small Steps Forward
Jason is deeply respectful of the unique journey of healing and social reintegration that each burn survivor may experience; he acknowledges that most burn survivors do not experience the same level of public support or acceptance that he encountered. He is fully aware, rather, that most survivors experience challenges. “I know that the level of support my family experienced was not the norm for many burn survivors. And I also had the emotional benefit of knowing that my injury was regarded with a high level of social acceptance, or even honor, as someone who was injured in the line of duty. The publicity around my injury made that transition into society much more acceptable.”
But he is acutely aware that the same cannot be said for other survivors. “I realize that many survivors face intensely challenging social situations,” says Jason. “They face staring, comments, or even the difficulty of just walking into a restaurant for the first time following their injury. “
In spite of the positive public reception, Jason had to manage his own emotional healing and the deep pain of his devastating injuries. “The truth is that for all of the public support, I still had to learn to face and accept my injuries. I had to accept that my appearance has been altered forever and that my face is severely disfigured. The reality is, there are a handful of people in the world that suffer injuries to this extent and still survive. But I did survive...and I had to find something to become proud of again so I could move forward.”
A second son, Masen, joined the family in October 2002. Jason and his family celebrated their growing family and purposefully sought joy in each small step forward in recovery and continued to heal together.
“Suzie and I were just reminiscing the other day about an evening at home soon after my discharge where she and I tried to plan a ‘date night’ and reconnect.” Suzie had gone to the video rental store and rented the movie “Castaway,” starring Tom Hanks. “It was a great idea, right? Well, I was still blind…and the idea was to listen to a great, blockbuster movie…spend time together,” Jason explains, laughing. “If you remember, that entire move has almost no dialogue. Tom Hanks is alone in the whole movie with just the ball [Wilson], that certainly can’t talk either… and I kept saying to my wife, ’What’s going on? What’s happening now?’ There was no way I could follow along at all. Eventually we just cracked up and laughed like crazy. It was an epic fail. And we still laugh about it today.“ It was those moments of laughter, appreciation, and joy that helped the family heal and find its new normal.
A New Venture
In November 2002 Jason returned to the job he loved as a police officer. Although he served with restricted duties due to the limitations of his injuries, he threw his enthusiasm and energy back into his career and in March 2004 he was promoted to homicide detective. Jason thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of his career as a detective, but due to his limited physical capacity and diminished eyesight, he announced his medical retirement from the police force in 2006.
Jason has since ventured into public speaking, sharing his story with local charities, police departments, and organizations across the country, with the hope that he will have a positive impact on the lives of others.
“I have become an active public speaker to share my story about overcoming adversity, from completely losing my physical appearance to where I am at today,” Jason says. “This is not to compare my adversity to that of someone else. Rather, I believe that we are all going to face adversity in life; it can be divorce, injuries, illness… and eventually we will all face death. By sharing my story of how I faced adversity and was able to overcome it, I strive to offer hope and possibility to others who may be facing difficult situations.”
Jason inspired and entertained the attendees as keynote speaker at Phoenix World Burn Congress 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. He shared their unique understanding of being a burn survivor, saying, “Burns are one injury that you really cannot compare to any other. They have life-long effects physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
Jason left the audience with this valuable piece of advice, “Never underestimate the power of the human spirit to persevere. I believe that humans have an inherent need to be inspired—so when you find something or see something that inspires you, move toward it. This life is short and precious. Don’t let the pain of today overcome the power of tomorrow.”