KETTERING, Ohio – Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schechterle lost everything the night his patrol car exploded in flames. By a miracle he was still alive, but he was left without his face, his vision, his very identity.
More than 50 surgeries and multiple skin transplants have helped Jason regain much of what he lost and something more. He now stands as a witness to his own rebirth. On Nov. 11 he visited the Community Tissue Services Center for Tissue Innovation and Research to tell his story in three separate staff meetings and then sign copies of his biography, “Burning Shield.”
His story is shocking, improbable, and inspiring. On the night of March 26, 2001 he got a call to respond to a possible homicide. As he approached a major Phoenix intersection he was rammed from behind by taxi traveling faster than 150 miles per hour.
Jason patrol car was immediately engulfed in flames. In his examination of this turning point in his life he sees a sequence of misfortunes, followed by a sequence of events essential to his survival.
The emergency call had come at the very end of his shift. The taxi driver had a history of epilepsy. He should never have been behind the wheel that night when he suffered a seizure and struck Jason.
But fortune turned in his favor. A fire truck was stopped 55 feet away at the same intersection. Two police officers were nearby and pulled him from the flames just 90 second after the crash. He was in emergency surgery eight minutes later.
That was just the beginning of Jason’s journey to recovery. He had suffered severe burns to over 40 percent of his body. The Jason that spoke at CTIR is confident, humble and filled with a sense of purpose. But there is no ignoring the injury that has left him permanently scarred.
PUTTING EVERYONE AT EASE
“I was at an airport gift shop, and a woman came up to me,” Jason said as he began his talk. “She said, ‘Do you mind if I ask what happened?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘Your face?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m from Phoenix and after a long summer this is what everybody looks like!’”
After breaking the ice with laughter, Jason began his message. “Every single one of you here is going through something in your life,” he said. “Think about what you’re going through now and what tools you have in your toolbox to help you get through them.”
Jason was inspired to become a police officer on March 26, 1999, the day he turned on the news and learned Phoenix Officer Mark Jackson had been killed in the line of duty. In 2000, at age 28, he earned his badge.
He contemplates that he suffered his near fatal accident on the two year anniversary of Mark Jackson’s death. “You can let adversity define you,” he said, “or you can let it strengthen you.”
Jason was burned beyond recognition. His best friend said, “Thank God it wasn’t Jason,” before recognizing the tattoo on his arm. A priest gave him last rights. His doctors said they had never seen burns so severe and there was no way he would live. They placed him in a medically induced coma.
“I lost my ears, nose, eyelids,” he said. “The entire identity I’d known for 28 years – gone.”
A MESSAGE TO CTIR STAFF
Part of his talk was only for CTIR. “This goes to the heart of what you do,” he said. “In the hours after the accident this guy doesn’t survive without what you do. I needed skin grafts to survive. Don’t forget there is someone at the final destination who will benefit from what you do.”
Jason learned of his condition when he emerged from his coma in June, two and a half months after the accident. “You can’t be told about something life-changing, especially something tragic, and say OK,” he said. “I was blind, alone with my thoughts all the time.”
He traced and retraced the tragedy. “He (the taxi driver) made several bad decisions that led him to that intersection. I made many good decisions that led me to that intersection. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I have a strong belief in accountability – we are exactly where we have chosen to be. Small decisions we make every day will have a ripple effect.”
He was able to come home months ahead of schedule, but his return upset his young son who cried, “You’re not my dad!”
His eyes had been covered so his corneas could heal. He said waking up to light after surgery was a blessing and soon a confrontation. “I was finally in front of a mirror to see what others are seeing,” he said. “It drove me crazy not to have ears!”
An undercover make-up expert tried to help with prosthetic nose and ears. He said the glue broke down in the Arizona sun “and my ears fell off.”
His biggest laugh came in telling the story of running a short distance as a torch bearer of the Olympic flame. “Don’t let the flame get too close to your face,” warned a young volunteer. “No sh–!” Jason replied.
He also knows how it feels to hear the cheers of 40,000 people as he threw out the first pitch at an Arizona Diamondbacks game. Listening to his team play in the World Series had given him a vital distraction during the darkest days of his recovery.
The high point of his journey was the birth of his son Nathan in 2002. “Taking him home from the hospital made everything I went through totally worth it,” he said. “You guys made it possible.”
LIFE BEYOND THE BADGE
Jason went back to work for the Phoenix Police as a public information officer. His goal was to become a detective, but his damaged hands couldn’t handle a firearm to meet the requirements. He retired in 2006 with no regrets. A nice consolation is that his golf handicap is better than before the accident.
“Life is truly 10 percent of what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it,” he said. “Life is too short and too precious. Don’t let the pain of today blind you to the promise of tomorrow.
“I walk these halls and that puts it into perspective,” he said of the cycle of life from tissue donor to tissue recipient. “Every day someone is tragically losing their life. But it comes full circle and it is all connected. When I see my children – I hope it resonates with you. It does make a difference.”