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THE NATION

Officer Wears Scars as a Badge of Courage

Support from family, friends and strangers help badly burned Jason Schechterle rebuild his life. He can drive, work and hold his new son.

December 08, 2002|Pauline Arrillaga | Associated Press Writer

Schechterle next consulted a plastic surgeon who works with Barron to improve the mobility in his neck and mouth, which were restricted by thick scars.

In June, Dr. Craig Dufresne inserted four silicone balloons into Jason's chest and back to stretch the uninjured skin so that it could be redistributed to replace the scar tissue around his neck. Every week for almost two months, doctors injected each balloon with up to 3 ounces of saline to make them swell.

"It's like when a woman becomes pregnant," Dufresne said. "The expanding fetus also expands the muscle and the skin. When the baby's delivered, the tissue doesn't always go back to the way it was."

As Schechterle put it: "I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame."

The procedure was not without complications. In July, during Schechterle's first police ride-along since the accident, his former partner, Bryan Chapman, noticed blood on his shirt and rushed him to the Arizona Burn Center. Blood from raw tissue was seeping through his sutures.

In early September, Dufresne removed the implants, sliced away some of Schechterle's scar tissue and re-draped the new skin from the base of his neck to the base of his skull. Then, using skin grafts from Schechterle's abdomen, he remade the upper and lower lips.

Now, Schechterle can turn his head with ease and close his lips. He can even eat a cheeseburger.

Also this summer, Schechterle had three painful operations to attempt to restore mobility to his right fingers. Earlier operations -- including one last year in which Schechterle's left index finger was transplanted to give him a new thumb -- restored what's called "key pinch" to both hands.

It is that function, the squeezing of his thumbs and forefingers, that enables him to turn on a car, grip the steering wheel, write his name and hold his baby's bottle.

Schechterle has other ambitions. He plans to meet with a woman who teaches the disabled to play golf; he once excelled at the game. And he is determined to shoot a gun again.

"I know there are some things that I will never do again, and most things I will never do the same way again, but I am dedicated to getting as much of my life back as I can," he said.

Perhaps the most successful treatment to date has involved Schechterle's eyes, which were so badly scarred that he was legally blind.

Dr. William McLeish of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale used special eyedrops to heal the corneas, then rebuilt Schechterle's eyelids using cartilage from what was left of his nose and inserted a new tear duct in his right eye.

Schechterle was fitted with a contact lens that improved the vision in his left eye to almost 20-20, and McLeish hopes to do the same for the right eye.

Among Schechterle's top goals was to get back behind the wheel. Shortly after his 30th birthday in November, he purchased a new, electric-blue pickup. Unlike his old truck, this one has an automatic transmission and remote keyless entry, making it easier to handle.

He was more adamant about work and set a target: Once the baby arrived, he was going back.

Two weeks after Masen was born, Schechterle returned to the department as a public affairs liaison. Although he misses patrol duty, he is thrilled to wear a badge again.

"Just because I don't have a gun, just because I'm not taking somebody to jail, doesn't mean I'm not doing what I wanted to do," he said. "I'm just taking a little different route."

Despite his accomplishments, Schechterle still struggles with his appearance.

He can speak in front of hundreds of people, Suzie notes, but he won't go to the grocery store or visit the park until sundown. Earlier this year, while in New York to meet with a specialist, he wouldn't leave the hotel until his friends bought him an oversized sweatshirt with a hood.

Chapman, his friend, offers an explanation: "It's not something he's ashamed of, but he doesn't want to frighten other people who aren't prepared to see something like that."

Some are scared. During one recent speech, a third-grader blurted out: "I think you're gonna give me nightmares tonight."

All Schechterle could say was, "I'm sorry, buddy."

"It doesn't upset me because it's a child," he said later. "But it's also a sad reminder."

He worries about embarrassing his own children once they get older, says Suzie, who insists that those fears are unfounded.

"Kiley is instant popularity because of who her dad is. All the little kids Zane goes to preschool with know who Dad is. But he still worries," she said. "He never wants to be a burden."

For now, Schechterle plans to forgo further reconstructive work on his face. One specialist suggested rebuilding it piece-by-piece using skin grafts from the rest of his body, but the procedure seemed too invasive, and Schechterle knows that little can be done to restore his appearance.

He doesn't even wear his prosthetic ears and nose all that often because they replace only a small piece of the missing puzzle.

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