Former Phoenix cop Jason Schechterle loving life again

by Richard Ruelas - May. 16, 2011 02:47 PM
The Arizona Republic

When Jason Schechterle stands at a podium and tells the story of how he was horrifically burned a decade ago, he goes for the laughs pretty early.

He does so before detailing the injuries and disfigurements the audience can readily see: the bald, scarred head; the nearly missing ear; the dislocated and missing fingers.

He points out an irony in the story of how an out-of-control taxi smashed into his Phoenix police car, engulfing it in flames and trapping him inside for 90 suffocating, searing seconds, causing third- and fourth-degree burns to his head, arms and legs.

The taxi’s passenger, Schechterle tells the audience, had just been released from jail.

“He got a taxi because he needed a ride home, and he ran into a cop,” Schechterle says. The audience tentatively giggles. “It is kind of funny,” he says. “You can laugh.”

The years since Schechterle’s accident on March 26, 2001, have brought enormous changes in his appearance, due to 52 surgeries and the passage of time. The changes in his outlook and mood are just as remarkable, though not as easily seen from the outside.

There is no trace of self-pity. He talks about feeling lucky, how every day of his life is great. And there are the jokes, most directed at his appearance, which he is comfortable mocking, because he no longer feels defined by it.

Ten years later, Schechterle can look back and see bright spots amid those flames.

“We laugh all the time,” he says. “There’s always humor I can find.”

Schechterle took a medical retirement five years ago from the Phoenix Police Department and has started Beyond the Flames, his own non-profit foundation. He hopes to raise money to disburse to injured people who, like him, seem to have little chance for survival or for regaining any semblance of a normal life. He will raise money by telling his story of tragedy and recovery.

Unexpected calling

It’s something Schechterle has done hundreds of times in the past decade. But he never thought it would be his calling.

Schechterle wasn’t very good when he started accepting invitations from schools about eight years ago. An introvert, he was not a polished public speaker. But the schools invited him, and he didn’t think he could, or should, say no.

“Speaking to kids is tough,” Schechterle says, relaxing in shorts and a T-shirt at his home, hours before he will get dressed up in a suit and tie and speak to a crowd of 100 medical professionals.

“It doesn’t matter what age, elementary to high school, they’re the toughest crowd.”

One child at a school once politely raised his hand to be called on. When Schechterle acknowledged him, the kid said, “I think you are going to give me nightmares.”

Schechterle fumbled for words for a few seconds. Then he simply told the boy that he was sorry about that.

Schechterle now prefers to speak to adults. His presentation includes extremely graphic photos of what he looked like hours after his accident. And it contains some adult humor and language.

Schechterle can clean it up if there are children in the crowd. But he still shows the photos, advising parents that maybe their children should turn away.

The photos are more graphic than those seen in newspapers and television stations at the time of the accident. They were taken by doctors, maybe for future study since his was such an unusual burn case.

One picture shows his head after all the burned tissue was removed. It’s picked over, spotted with raw, red sores. Another shows him covered with ashen skin harvested from cadavers.

Schechterle doesn’t recognize himself in the photos and doesn’t remember the experience. He was kept in a medically induced coma until June 2001, while surgeons worked on him.

“When I see them (the photos),” he says, “I don’t feel any crazy emotions.”

The emotion he does have is anticipation. He knows he has to bring the audience through this ugly part of the story. But he can’t wait to get to the good stuff – and the punch lines – ahead.

 A head for jokes

He tells the audience about his wife helping him to dress on July 31, 2001, the day he was released from the hospital. She scrunched up a T-shirt and put his arms through it and started to pull it over his head. Schechterle shouted at her to stop. She did, fearful she would hurt him.

“Hey,” he told her, “don’t mess up my hair.”

It was a statement that, despite his appearance, Schechterle didn’t want to be treated gingerly.

There were no kid gloves in November 2002 when he returned to the Phoenix Police force. At first, he served as a public information officer, a desk job, and then as a detective in the homicide unit. The gallows humor of the job was trained on him.

“They had so many nicknames for me,” he says. “They were always messing with me.”

One day he found a Mr. Potato Head toy on his desk. It was dressed in a police uniform, a nod to Schechterle’s job. It was also missing its ears and nose.

“It made me feel at home,” he says. “We laughed non-stop.”

As a detective, Schechterle found confidence. He was absorbed in his job and didn’t worry about what he looked like. He was not a burn victim; he was a homicide detective.

“I had a purpose and a mission,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned about what people thought.”

But his poor eyesight – Schechterle wears both a soft and a hard contact lens in each eye – meant that he couldn’t effectively fire his gun. And a detective who can’t carry a weapon was no type of detective, he figured. He took retirement in 2006.

It meant he could spend more time at home with his children, Kiley, Zane and Masen, who was born 19 months after the accident. That pregnancy merits a punch line in Schechterle’s speech.

Wanting still to spend time around the department, he signed up as a reserve officer. He also started a medical transport business with his former partner.

Finding purpose

The years after he left the department, Schechterle says, was time he spent “stumbling” around, trying to figure out what to do with himself. His police days behind him, he needed a new purpose.

The invitations to speak continued, and Schechterle continued to accept them, honing his story and his message with each one, becoming more comfortable all the time.

A year ago, a New York City firefighter came up to him after a speech with tears in his eyes.

“You changed my life tonight,” the man told him.

For Schechterle, it was a revelation. “I thought, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t do this as much as you can,’ ” he says.

The man who had spent years not wanting to be defined by his outward appearance now heads a foundation where his chief job is giving a speech telling how he got burned and how he recovered.

People who survive a major tragedy, like nearly burning to death, often will say they are better for having lived through it. And that’s true for Schechterle, who says his life is better now than before the accident.

But he stops short of saying that he’s glad it happened. He can’t honestly say that. Given the choice, though, he would not have taken himself out of the situation that night.

If the taxi hadn’t hit him, he reasons, it might have continued on and struck and killed a grandmother or a young mother and her children. Better it was him, someone who could survive.

He had a lot of time to think about this after waking from his coma and lying in his hospital bed, blinded because doctors had covered his eyes with skin to protect them.

“So that’s the night I decided to be proud of who I was, be proud of how I looked, and I started putting my life back together,” he said.

No ill will

He harbors no resentment toward the taxi driver who struck him. The man, Rogelio Gutierrez, was suffering an epileptic seizure at the time. But, prosecutors said, he hadn’t taken his prescribed medication.

Gutierrez’s prison sentence ends in 2013, a punishment Schechterle considers fair, considering that the taxi driver has three children, just like he does.

“I think of all the stuff I’ve done, getting to watch my kids grow,” he says. “To think of all the things he’s missed.”

He has spent more time thinking about the Ford Motor Co. He sued the automaker for its placement of the gas tank on the Crown Victoria, a factor he believes led to the fire that nearly killed him as well as fires that killed at least 15 other officers nationwide, including three in Arizona.

Had his car not ignited, Schechterle says, his injuries likely would have been two cracked ribs and a mild concussion. He’d have been out of the hospital within hours.

“That’s the part I’ve thought about a lot,” Schechterle says. “That’s why I was on such a mission.”

Ford settled the lawsuit in 2004, with the condition that the settlement amount not be disclosed. It also agreed to change the fuel-tank design on the Crown Victoria.

For years following the accident, Schechterle seemed constantly to be recovering from surgeries. At first, there were surgeries to restore his sight and to reconnect muscles. Doctors created a skin farm – a large inflated blob – on the back of his left hand, which Schechterle declared the most disgusting thing he had ever seen.

He also endured painful therapy that taught him how to walk, talk and eat again. As the nerve endings regrew beneath his skin, showers felt like thousands of needles stabbing his raw skin.

A therapist used tongue depressors to stretch his jaw. He got to the point he could use a straw, then manage a spoonful of breakfast cereal. Now he can comfortably eat a double cheeseburger.

Many of the surgeries concentrated on his hands. Doctors moved the index finger on his left hand to where his left thumb used to be. The ring and pinkie fingers on that hand are slowly regaining feeling, he says.

On his right hand, the thumb was permanently crossed over his index finger. Schechterle asked whether his doctor could just remove the index finger. The doctor said he’d had the same idea, but was afraid to bring it up.

Back in the swing

That was Schechterle’s favorite surgery. Afterward, he was able to grip with both hands. It meant he could drive. It meant he could play golf again.

Schechterle’s golf game now is better than before the accident. He has a zero handicap, impressive for an amateur player. In April, he shot his best round ever, a 67.

“With these hands,” he says, emphatically. With five working fingers total.

The time he spends out golfing is evident on his face. The lower half is deeply tanned, starting just below a line that marks where the frame of his ever-present sunglasses rides. The doctors tell him to wear sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. But Schechterle thinks those hats make him look goofy.

His plastic surgeon wants to do more work on him.

“No interest, buddy,” he says. “Not right now. Maybe later.”

He decided to stop the parade of surgeries five years ago, with the 52nd one. It was supposed to be a simple procedure to remove a cracked plate in his hand. But he ended up with a near-fatal staph infection.

“I woke up from that and said that’s it,” he says.

Schechterle doesn’t think more surgeries would change his appearance much anyway. He can’t see his old self in his new self, although some say they can see elements of his old face. “I don’t know if they’re trying to be polite,” he says.

In his dreams, he used to look like his old self. Then there came a time when his images were mixed, both his pre-accident self and his post-accident self occupying his dreams. Now when he dreams, he says, he looks like he does now.

“It’s almost like a subconscious transformation,” he says.

As the years came and went and Schechterle got past the major hurdles of walking and seeing again, he turned to minor ones, like getting his tattoos back.

In his Air Force days, right out of high school, he got a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil, his favorite cartoon character. Then had the name of his firstborn son put on his right arm. They were removed along with his burned skin.

“You talk about quick,” he says. “You don’t have to go through the laser process.”

 Back in ink

Doctors told him his skin grafts would not take tattoos. His tattoo artist took that as a challenge.

“Tattoos look a lot better than skin grafts anyway,” Schechterle says. “I don’t feel like I’m ruining my body.”

He since has been inked with more, including one of a phoenix, the mythical bird that rose from its ashes.

He also has a ring tattooed on his finger. Any real ring big enough to get past his swollen knuckle would end up spinning loosely on the finger. Suzie Schechterle also had a ring tattooed on her finger.

“I had it easier, because I couldn’t feel anything,” Schechterle says, tapping and flexing his hands. “So many numb spots.”

Today, Schechterle is a man at peace, secure in himself and comfortable with what life has handed him. It’s not all because of the accident, he says. He sees the same growth in his friends, simply because they are all changing with age.

“Ten years from now, when I’m 48, I’ll probably look back and say, ‘Remember when you thought you figured it out?’ ” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know why life is that way. (But) I’m comfortable now with everything.”

Schechterle was indeed a burn victim. But in 2011, that is more a role he steps into when called to speak about it in public. Most of the time, he’s a husband and a father and a scratch golfer and a sports nut.

That last passion is manifested during football season in his backyard “man cave,” a one-room structure that houses three big-screen televisions and a poker table. Schechterle and friends are in there all day and night on Saturdays watching college football – especially the games of his beloved University of Alabama – and losing all perspective.

Here, he is not a beacon of hope or an inspiration to others. He is a crazed fan not above beating furniture with an autographed baseball bat given to him by former Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Steve Finley.

A metal sign hanging in the room is from two close friends. It was a Christmas gift. And they giggled with anticipation as Schechterle opened it, then nearly fell over as he read it for the first time.

The sign reads: “If you’re smoking in here, you better be on fire.”

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