Survival: Battling the burns, enduring the whispers (part 2 of 3)

Posted: Monday, June 10, 2002

EDITOR'S NOTE -- The burns suffered by Jason Schechterle cost him his face, and more. They tested his doctors' skill and his family's love. This is the second part of a three-part serial.

PHOENIX -- It was after sunrise when the three surgeons emerged from the operating room in the Arizona Burn Center. Even they were horrified at what they had left behind.

''Monstrous,'' one muttered as the operation concluded.

The man on the table had been stripped of his entire face. Gone were the eyelids, the eyebrows, most of the nose and ears. He had no cheeks or forehead, no skin whatsoever.

He looked like an anatomical model, dissected to muscle. And even some of that was gone.

It took four hours to excise the skin and other dead tissue from Phoenix police officer Jason Schechterle's face, head and neck following the fiery car accident that left him with fourth-degree burns. Afterward, Drs. Daniel Caruso, Kevin Foster and Clifford Smith stapled cadaver skin over his face to temporarily protect the wounds.

''He made it through,'' Caruso told Suzie Schechterle. ''We never lost him.''

When Suzie went in to see her husband, still deeply sedated, his head was the size of a watermelon and covered in bloodstained bandages. Only his lips were visible. They were swollen, but they were his lips. Though burned, they were still perfect, she thought.

She pulled back the sheet to see his feet. The fire had spared them. Bending down, she kissed each toe as tears spilled down her cheeks. ''I love you so much,'' she told him over and over.

She didn't promise that everything would be OK. That, she just didn't know.

When Suzie was only 8, her father died of a lung aneurism. She'd spent the rest of her life searching for the stability she had lost as a child. She couldn't bear thinking the same fate might befall her own kids.

She needed to talk with them about Jason.

Zane, only 2 1/2, wouldn't understand. For now, Daddy was just at work.

Kiley, Jason's 7-year-old stepdaughter, would see through any lies. On that first afternoon home, Suzie called her into the kitchen and knelt down on the floor, looking into her daughter's eyes.

Jason had been horribly burned, she explained. He didn't have ears or a nose. His hair was gone. As her daughter sobbed, Suzie told her that God might take Jason, and that might be better. Either way, whether he lived or died, they would make it, Suzie vowed.

Without a word, Kiley crawled into her mother's lap. In the middle of the kitchen floor, they clung to each other and cried.

That night, Suzie curled up on the couch, clutching one of Jason's police shirts. It hadn't been washed, and still smelled of him. Their wedding album lay in her lap.

''How am I going to do this?'' she kept asking herself, before finally drifting to sleep.

Morning brought no clearer idea what the future might hold -- and yet she reminded herself that she had survived plenty: her father's death, a difficult childhood, a divorce. Somehow she would survive this, too.

Running away was simply not an option. Her children needed her. Jason needed her.

And no matter what, she still needed him.

- - - - -

In the first few days after the March 2001 accident, Jason returned to the operating room four times as doctors removed more dead skin from his head, arms, legs and hands.

Suzie took leave from the dentist's office where she worked as an assistant and set up a schedule of care for the kids. She found a therapist for Kiley, and one for herself. She spent her days at the burn unit.

By the end of the first week, surgeons replaced the cadaver skin on Jason's face with a material made from shark cartilage and bovine collagen. At three weeks, with Jason still unconscious, doctors stapled sections of skin from his back, buttocks and legs over the artificial dermis on his face, head and neck.

Treatment was moving along as planned, but in the second month, Jason's hands began to fail.

The first two fingers and thumb of his left hand were burned to the bone, and had to be amputated. On both hands, the burns had exposed tendons, which, if left uncovered, would dry up and die.

Worried they might lose both hands altogether, the doctors had to find a way to make new tissue grow over the exposed tendons. They made two incisions, one on each side of Jason's abdomen. Into these kangaroo pouches, they inserted his hands.

Weeks later, they pulled Jason's hands back out and grafted skin over the tissue now covering the tendons.

Through it all, Jason remained in a chemical coma -- doped up on pain and anti-anxiety medication. Because his eyelids were burned off, doctors sewed his eyes shut to protect the corneas.

For Suzie, the routine of skin grafting and surgery became normal. She had come to accept that their lives would never be the same, that this was their life now. But there were still so many unanswered questions: Would Jason be able to see and hear? Had his injuries or the drugs impaired his mind?

Those answers would have to wait until Jason woke up, but there was one question she could answer for herself, one demon she had to confront.

What did her husband look like?

''Can I see him?'' she asked Caruso and Foster in their office one day, about a month after the accident.

Only the medical team had seen Jason without his bandages.

''I don't know if that's the best idea,'' Foster replied.

But Suzie wouldn't budge.

''I don't know what to expect, and it scares me,'' she told the doctors. ''Not knowing what Jason will look like is probably harder than to see him and get it over with.''

At Room 7 of the burn unit, with Foster on one side and Caruso on the other, Suzie pushed through the door. ''There's a chair,'' Foster murmured, in case she felt faint.

Jason lay on the bed -- naked but for a sheet across his waist.

Even from the doorway, Suzie felt she'd been punched in the gut. She simply could not comprehend how much of the man she had married four years earlier was gone.

The soft cheeks, creased with two perfect dimples when he smiled, were replaced with skin stapled together like a quilt. The patches were an odd shade of magenta, with veins snaking throughout.

The slender nose was little more than a hump with two holes in it.

The ears looked like charred wood in a fireplace, ready to crumble at the slightest touch.

''He looks nothing like my husband,'' she thought. But this was still Jason, and she had to reconcile what he had become on the outside with who he was on the inside. Seeing him, she could begin.

Suzie pulled a footstool to the bed for a closer look. Soon, she was pointing at Jason and peppering the doctors with questions.

The weight had been lifted. He looks like hell, Suzie thought, but she could deal with it; she could learn to look beyond the burns.

She only prayed that Jason could, too, when he finally awoke.

- - - - -

He heard the machines first. Then he smelled that unmistakable antiseptic odor.

''I'm in a hospital,'' Jason thought, his mind grasping in darkness. ''Why can't I see?''

He coughed, and suddenly heard a voice.

''I'm here,'' his wife said. ''You were in an accident.''

He didn't feel any pain. It couldn't be that big a deal.

''When?'' he asked, his throat raspy.

''March 26th,'' Suzie replied, and it struck him that she didn't say last night or yesterday.

''What's today?''

Suzie hesitated.

''Well,'' she said, ''today's June 12th.''

Suzie gently told him the story. You were hit by a cab, she said. It wasn't your fault. Your eyes are sewn shut; that's why you can't see. Jason asked what bones were broken. How could she tell him it wasn't that simple?

''Your car caught on fire.''

It was the thing he dreaded most. He could take being shot or stabbed, but not burned, not maimed.

A year earlier, when an Arizona trooper burned to death in his patrol car, Jason had told a friend, ''If that ever happened to me, I wouldn't want to live.'' Shoot me, he'd said. Put me out of my misery.

When Suzie asked now if he wanted to know his injuries, Jason simply said no.

- - - - -

Jason put his energy into getting out of the hospital.

His days were filled with physical therapy and visits from family and friends.

But he wasn't the Jason everyone remembered. His partner and best friend, Bryan Chapman, visited every day. He'd tell what was happening at the precinct, talk about current events. But they were one-way conversations, and Bryan would run out of things to say.

Late at night, alone in his room, Jason cried. The hardest part was not seeing his kids. Kiley had come to the hospital a few times, but they thought Zane wasn't ready yet. With his eyes sewn shut, Jason couldn't even see pictures of them. Suzie brought tapes from home so he could hear their voices.

He felt so removed from his old life, and learning about his injuries made it worse.

Do I have a nose? he asked one day.

Sorry, the doctors told him.

Ears?

Gone.

Hair?

Gone.

Each answer seemed to subtract from his identity.

When Jason learned that three of his fingers had been amputated, he was devastated. Who was he now?

He tried and tried to picture what he looked like, but he couldn't fathom what fourth-degree burns would leave behind. He was scared to death that it -- no, he -- would be socially unacceptable.

''How ugly am I?'' he asked Suzie.

''You're not,'' she tried to assure him. ''To me, you're not ugly. You're just different, that's all.''

Yet in the back halls of the hospital, people talked. Jason and Suzie had been like Ken and Barbie. She was young and attractive. And he, well ....

With all that had happened, would she stay or go? Some even made bets.

But appearance is not identity, Suzie kept saying.

''I don't want the looks of the man I married,'' she told Jason. ''I just want the man.''

- - - - -

Four months after the accident, Jason was transferred from the burn center to a rehabilitation unit. As he learned to use what was left of his body, doctors projected a release date: Aug. 17.

Jason was thrilled and terrified.

He'd had 19 surgeries and awaited more. He had gone from a fearless 190-pound cop to a fragile 132-pound invalid who couldn't feed himself. And his physical appearance could be worse than his physical limitations. He could be a freak, but Jason still didn't know. His eyes remained sealed.

He pestered Suzie with questions: How would he get around the house? Should they put up railings so he could guide himself? Would he be too big a burden for her? Would the kids adapt?

When Suzie finally brought Zane to visit his father at the rehab center, the boy ran from him.

''Where's my Daddy?'' he screamed.

Ten days before his release, Jason suffered his biggest setback yet.

Meeting for the first time with the hand specialist, he was told he'd need at least six operations to regain any semblance of function. Worse, the doctor wanted to amputate what remained of the left index finger to give Jason a new thumb.

Jason couldn't believe it. Remove another piece of him? Take part of his hand to replace a finger that already had been amputated? He started crying and couldn't stop.

As he sat in the doctor's office, his head hung low, Jason suddenly realized what his tears had done: Some scabs over his left eye had washed away, and the sutures were separating.

The opening was no bigger than a pinhole -- but Jason could see.

All the questions, the fears, the reality of what had happened -- he was about to confront it all. He was about to see for himself what the fire had left behind.

To be continued Tuesday.

Pauline Arrillaga is the AP's Southwest regional writer, based in Phoenix.



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