A young Vermont woman says she’s happy to be alive four months after a near-death experience led to a spinal cord injury and a double leg amputation.
So much has happened to Stefanie Schaffer, 22, of Rutland, it’s hard to believe it all started with swimming pigs.
“The excursion was the whole reason we went there,” Schaffer says of her family’s trip to the Bahamas.
“It’s an uninhabited island. So the stop was going to be the pigs and snorkeling and there was also an island with iguanas,” said Stacey Bender, Schaffer’s mother.
Schaffer’s sister, Brooke, and Bender’s husband, Paul, joined family friends and fellow tourists as they boarded a boat to the Exuma Cays on June 30.
“Being on a boat in the Bahamas is obviously a very good experience but that’s all I remember,” said Schaffer.
What happened next was a moment of chaotic fate: an explosion and then a burst of flames.
“I thought I had just been pulled out. But it’s amazing how quickly your mind can take things in and I realized there was metal flying by me. Then it turned around and it looked like a scene from a movie,” remembered Bender.
Bender says she clung to Maleka Jackson, the only other person to be thrown from the boat in the explosion.
“We kind of locked forearms and kind of clung with each other,” said Bender. “We were just both holding each other for a source of comfort for a little while. She was looking for her husband while I was looking for Stefanie.”
Maleka Jackson, 39, of Atlanta, GA, did not survive.
Stefanie Schaffer was severely injured.
“I was just in a ton of pain and I just remember the feeling of panic – that’s all I remember,” Schaffer said.
“Was that in the hospital or on the boat?” asked Local 22 & Local 44 News’ Staci DaSilva.
“No, it was trying to get to the hospital after the boat,” Schaffer remembered.
“When I saw how injured she was – I mean, I have a snapshot of it in my mind and I knew it was bad,” Bender said.
Stefanie Schaffer’s injuries were numerous: broken arms, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury.
Doctors at a Bahamas hospital performed two below the knee amputations.
“I hadn’t broken a single bone before,” said Schaffer with a smile.
Her mother, Stacey Bender, suffered a broken heel, a broken fibula, a broken wrist and broken ribs. (As of late October, all of her injuries had healed except for her foot which still required physical therapy.)
Although hurt, Bender never left Schaffer’s side, even when the former dancer and student athlete was in a coma for weeks in a Florida hospital or when she was on dialysis due to kidney damage.
“There was definitely a lot of nightmares at the beginning, not wanting to sleep because you knew that you were going to have bad dreams,” said Bender. “[Stefanie’s] been so afraid of other people getting hurt. She’s so scared about losing me. I couldn’t even be away from her for 20 minutes at the beginning. But it’s getting better.”
Bender says her daughter’s upbeat, sweet personality has returned.
“She finally looks healthy. She’s got an amazing attitude and spirit now. I’m so proud of her,” said Bender.
Bender says Schaffer continues to beat the odds, the pride beaming from her petite frame.
“The friends that we were with that helped rescue her off the boat, they did not think she’d make it to shore. They told us that when they visited a few weeks ago. The airlift, the doctor that rode on the airlift with her did not think she’d make it. I mean, she just keeps coming back,” Bender said. “They were really wondering about her kidneys. They had told us to start thinking about Plan B and we had about two weeks before she probably would have gone on a transplant list and she just keeps plugging along.”
Since early fall, Schaffer and Bender have been undergoing physical therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
“The biggest challenge is trying to figure out a new way to kind of move yourself around because you depend on your legs and everything’s so much harder now. It gets very tiring. When you get tired, it’s hard to stay hopeful and motivated,” said Schaffer.
She tries hard, with the help of her family, friends and medical staff, to stay positive and motivated. Anything else will stall her progress.
The young woman is on both a physical and a mental journey.
“Seeing the [explosion] video for the first time was how it finally sunk in that I lost my legs because for some reason my brain could not process it. I could see my legs but for some reason I still thought I had my legs,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer has met with New England Patriots players and Boston Marathon bombing survivors for inspiration and camaraderie.
“To see them living completely normal lives now kind of keeps me motivated to keep going because that’s where I want to be,” said Schaffer.
The family is also thankful for the Vermont community. Community members have held countless fundraisers and events to show Stefanie and her family they’re not far from their minds.
“Those hardest days at the beginning, if we just stopped and thought about how many people were thinking of us, it was motivating. It just filled our hearts,” said Bender of the international community supporting her family.
“It’s very surprising. It’s amazing how many people take the time out of their lives to pray, send messages like ‘thinking of you,’ donating and just doing everything they’re doing. I had no idea that this would be what the reaction was,” said Schaffer.
Schaffer is being fit for prosthetics and braces while she remains at Spaulding until close to Thanksgiving.
The goal is for her to be able to stand up before she returns to Vermont for the holidays.
“Get her in the best position to go home, be as independent as possible,” said Dr. David Crandell, the medical director for Spaulding’s amputee program.
Dr. Crandell says Schaffer’s combined injuries are a rare pair.
“It involves both the involvement of the nervous system recovery and limb loss, those are some real challenges,” said Dr. Crandell. “Because of her spinal cord injury, people have to realize that’s the primary impairment. It’s not a competition between spinal cord injury and amputation, but her spinal cord injury is really the dominant factor that’s gonna impact her overall function.”
Schaffer had moved into an apartment with her friends in Burlington just days before traveling to the Bahamas.
Schaffer’s goal is to walk, to live independently, graduate from Castleton University and pursue a career in health education.
“I asked her maybe she should be doing some writing about her experiences. Maybe she could even get some college credit for her prolonged stay here,” said Dr. Crandell.
“I think she will really be a help to people because she’s going to know not just what she’s learned but what she’s lived,” said Bender.
“Is there a silver lining?” asked Local 22 & Local 44 News’ Staci DaSilva.
“Being alive is kind of the silver lining. Kind of thinking back, now I really appreciate things more because I’m alive and it’s the first time I’ve ever thought that I wouldn’t be and you kind of just appreciate the little things, like, just getting to go outside, just getting to spend time with your family, just all the little things that you don’t appreciate before,” said Schaffer.
“Finish this sentence: Stefanie Schaffer is…” asked DaSilva.
“Strong, I guess,” Schaffer answered. “When you get hurt, keep pushing through even when it’s hard. When you’re feeling down just try to pick yourself up and get through it because it does get better.”
Schaffer and her family hired a Florida-based attorney Blake Dolman.
He says the boat that exploded in the Bahamas was operated by one of the most prominent and highly publicized companies in the Exuma area.
“There were a shocking amount of errors, failures, defects and oversights which led to the horrific explosion in the vicinity of the starboard fuel tank which ultimately caused the loss of Stefanie’s lower extremities and serious injuries to the other members of the Schaffer family,” he wrote in a statement.
The boat was not registered and had not been inspected as required by law, according to Dolman.
“We are preparing to take all legal action necessary to obtain justice and compensation for our clients who were the innocent victims of this entirely preventable tragedy,” wrote Dolman.