Healing: Learning to see beyond the burns (part 3 of 3)

Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 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 last part of a three-part serial.

PHOENIX -- Without hesitating, Jason Schechterle raised his hands to his face. Through a slit the size of a pinhole in his scabbed left eye, he could see for the first time the damage the fire had done.

On his left hand, his first two fingers were amputated at the knuckles. His thumb was completely gone, and his ring finger was permanently bent at the tip. On his right hand, every finger but his thumb was dislocated and stuck at a 90-degree angle. He couldn't straighten them at all.

Both were covered with bulbous growths almost as big as tennis balls, from when doctors had surgically implanted his hands into his abdomen to help regrow burned-off tissue.

Jason broke down again. He was disgusted, ashamed and petrified of what his life had become. He had been a police officer only 14 months. Would he be able to hold a gun with these paws? Could he still be a cop? And what about all the other things he loved? Could he golf with his dad? Play catch with his son?

''How can you even hold my hand?'' he asked his wife.

''I love your hands,'' Suzie Schechterle said, kissing them.

It had been 4 1/2 months since the accident that left him with disfiguring burns to his head, face and hands, and Jason was only beginning to grasp the extent of his injuries. He tried to examine his face, but with his right eye sewn shut, his left barely open and his corneas scarred, he couldn't see much.

The face would have to wait.

- - - - -

Jason was sent home from the rehabilitation center on Aug. 17, nearly five months after the accident. Suzie fed him, bathed him, brushed his teeth, put him to bed, turned the TV on and off -- even changed his bandages.

The skin graft sites stung like a severe sunburn during every dressing change. Jason's skin was so sensitive that showers were like needles raining down on him.

He felt like a child, and cried constantly.

Then one day Suzie insisted he feed himself. ''I know you can do it,'' she said. He was furious, but he did it. A few days later she suggested he try the bathroom alone. He was furious, but he did that, too.

Soon, Jason was getting the Gatorade out of the fridge, balancing the bottle between his ravaged hands. He couldn't open the lid, but he could pour.

By confronting his limitations, he started to deal with them. He got tennis shoes with zippers and began wearing workout pants without drawstrings or buttons. As he progressed, the crying stopped.

His days were consumed with therapy, doctors' appointments and more surgeries.

Doctors went forward with the amputation of Jason's left index finger to replace his thumb. They put his right hand in a temporary cast to try to straighten his dislocated fingers. He'd need at least four more operations for joint and tendon transplants, and to relocate his fingers.

With each revelation, Jason understood more clearly that he would not get full use back of his hands, that he probably would never again hold a gun as a policeman.

The eye doctor told him corneal transplants were likely because of the scarring. His eyesight slowly improved to where he could read a newspaper if he held it close, and he bought a big-screen TV.

And what about his face? The doctors had discussed reconstruction: more surgeries, many options. All of that he couldn't address until he finally saw it for himself.

- - - - -

It happened one October morning. Jason got out of bed and went into the bathroom as usual, only on this day his eyesight seemed better.

Jason had caught glimpses of his face, but never looked close-up. On this day, seeing his outline in the bathroom mirror, he moved closer, then leaned in until his face almost touched the glass.

Feeling his way as he stared, he took it all in, one section at a time. The right ear was completely gone. The left had a bit of lobe left. The nose looked like a shaven stump. His bald head, which Jason had worried would look like an egg, seemed flat instead.

He was looking at a stranger, at someone whose entire face had simply been erased. He was a curiosity, even to himself.

''Whoa,'' he thought. ''Look at that.''

Then, after 10 minutes, he was done. There were no tears, not like the time he saw his hands. He did not even tell Suzie until later that night.

''I got a really good look at myself today,'' he said. ''It was just about what I'd expected.''

For months, Jason had lived with the knowledge that he was deformed. He had tried for so long to imagine what the burns had done, that when he finally saw his face for himself, it wasn't as bad as the pictures he'd conjured. It certainly wasn't as shocking as his hands.

Nevertheless, he longed for his old self. When he dreamed, it was of the Jason before the accident -- strong and sure and handsome. And when the doctors told him he would never wrinkle or gray, he wondered what he would've looked like as an old man.

He missed the man he was, and the man he would never be.

What kind of burden was it for Suzie to be married to someone who looked like this? He pondered that sometimes, but knew she'd have left long ago if she didn't really want to be there.

Mostly, he worried for the children. Would other kids tease them because their daddy didn't look normal? Would they themselves ever come to embrace the new Jason?

Kiley, Jason's 7-year-old stepdaughter, had grown used to his injuries, although she still shied away from hugs. For Zane, his son, acceptance was harder to come by.

- - - - -

The day before Thanksgiving, the local TV news featured a story about Jason's recovery. An old photograph of him in his police uniform, smiling before an American flag, filled the screen.

Zane, now 3, walked into the living room just then. He stopped in his tracks, transfixed by the face.

''Hey!'' he exclaimed. ''That's my Daddy!''

No more than a foot away, Jason watched from his favorite chair. He quietly studied the boy by the television, the boy whose own image mirrored the one in the box.

''Who am I?'' he asked his son.

Zane turned to the voice. It was familiar, but he wasn't sure who this man was. He remained quiet.

''Am I your Daddy?'' Jason asked.

Zane examined him some more, but his mind couldn't sort things out. Finally, he decided.

''No,'' the boy replied. ''That's my Daddy.'' And he turned back to the TV.

Jason's heart sank. He'd been home three months, and he still wasn't Daddy.

If his own son viewed him as a stranger, how would the rest of the world react?

For the first few months back home, Jason's life revolved around only an inner circle of friends and family, and the doctors and therapists who knew his injuries well.

In December, for the first time, he ventured out -- to a police banquet to accept an award. He worried his old colleagues would recoil. As it turned out, they not only told him how happy they were to see him, they hugged him, touched him. Jason's confidence grew.

Not long afterward, Suzie took him to a movie. He started doing television interviews, and was asked to carry the Olympic torch through Phoenix. He visited his old precinct, spoke to a high school assembly.

Everywhere he went, strangers would walk up and shake his deformed hand.

''I prayed for you,'' they'd say. ''You're an inspiration.''

Jason began to feel a deep change in himself.

Psychologists will tell you the face is your identity. The face is your personality. The face is you. To overcome an injury so disfiguring in a society obsessed with appearance, victims must come to believe it is they who matter, not their face. Their soul becomes their identity.

Jason was shaped by his roles as husband and father and police officer. After the fire, he had to determine how he fit into those roles as a changed Jason.

He discovered, gradually, that he could go out with his wife -- and, yes, hold her hand -- even if some people stared. He could help his daughter with homework, even if he had to hold the notebook close so his damaged eyes could see.

Perhaps he couldn't be a cop on the streets, but he could talk to students and other cops about his ordeal. That mattered, too.

''I know what a lot of people think,'' he says. ''They look at my face and think, 'Oh, I couldn't live like that.' I probably wouldn't have wanted to be saved that night either had I been awake and conscious.

''But now,'' he says, ''I can still have my life, just like I had it before. I can still laugh. I can still talk. I'm still able to function with my kids. Those firefighters and doctors did me a huge favor. They gave me a chance to be something. And I'm still very proud of who I am.''

The fire stole his face, but Jason Schechterle's soul is intact. He has learned that. In time, others come to see it as well.

On the day after New Year's, the family piled into the living room. Suzie was taking ornaments off the Christmas tree, while Kiley and Zane played with the decorations. Jason was in his favorite chair.

Suddenly, Zane spotted their tree topper -- an angel with a photo inside, showing Jason in his police uniform. The same photograph he had seen on the news only a month before.

He picked up the picture, and walked over to Jason.

''Hey, Daddy,'' Zane said. ''This is you.''

Jason glanced at the photo, then back at the boy he once resembled.

''Yeah,'' he replied. ''That is me.''

And as his son went back to playing, the man with no face sat back in his chair and he smiled.

- - - -

Jason Schechterle plans to return to the police department, most likely in the public information office, this summer, well ahead of his goal of three years set when he left the hospital.

The cab driver who hit Jason had suffered an epileptic seizure. He had been involved in four prior seizure-related accidents and shouldn't have been driving, according to testimony at his trial. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being convicted of aggravated assault for injuring Jason and passenger Lawrence Tracy, who suffered broken ribs.

Jason's recovery continues. He can take a shirt off over his head, shower alone, hold a 44-ounce drink. He can even play catch with Zane, after teaching his remade hands to hold onto a ball.

He's met with specialists and plans to replace his nose and ears with prosthetics, but he doesn't want to undergo years of facial reconstruction. He'd rather focus on his hands and his eyes -- on function, rather than appearance.

''Don't get me wrong,'' he says. ''I miss my face. But while my appearance matters, it helps that I have a beautiful wife who looks at me like she used to, is affectionate to me like she used to be.

''If she doesn't care, why should I?''

One day in March, almost a year after the accident, Suzie called Jason on the cell phone on his way to therapy. She had some news.

The test was positive. Their baby is due in November.

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

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