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THE NATION

Fire Can't Scorch His Soul

Tragedy: Severely injured Phoenix policeman struggles to regain a semblance of his former life. At first, he's disconsolate. But then he finds hope.

June 23, 2002|PAULINE ARRILLAGA | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

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 four 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 didn't 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 imagined. 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 have 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.

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