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THE NATION

Whispers and Tears Await Officer

Tragedy: Jason Schechterle dreaded becoming a burn victim, and that's exactly what happened to him. Now he and his family must learn to cope.

June 16, 2002|PAULINE ARRILLAGA | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

Second in a weekly series

*

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 after 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.

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

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

She needed to talk with them about Jason.

Zane, only 2, wouldn't understand. For now, Daddy was 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 smelled of him. The 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. 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 out and grafted skin on 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 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 one day, about a month after the accident.

Only the medical team had seen Jason without his bandages.

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