Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stefanie Schaffer was in a coma when the rest of the world learned her story. The details of the event that changed the course of her life and landed her in a Florida intensive care unit in 2018 were quickly splashed across the internet and television screens.
Now, the 25-year-old from Rutland, Vermont, is telling her own story.
Schaffer’s memoir, “Without Any Warning,” will publish on Tuesday. In it, she chronicles her experience in the days and years after being critically injured when the tour boat she was a passenger on in the Bahamas exploded. Schaffer, along with her younger sister, mother, and stepfather, was headed to see the swimming pigs of the Exuma Cays on June 30, 2018. But shortly after the excursion began, the boat, which was carrying two crew members and 10 American passengers including Schaffer’s family, blew up.
The blast resulted in the death of one of the passengers, Maleka Jackson of Atlanta, Georgia, who was on a trip celebrating her 15th wedding anniversary with her husband. The nine remaining passengers, including Schaffer and her mother, suffered a range of injuries. Schaffer, who was found under the wreckage, had to have both her legs amputated and she suffered a burst fracture in her back, as well as other broken bones.
Schaffer told Boston.com ahead of her book’s publication that she knew early on in her recovery that she wanted to write about what she went through.
During the writing process, she said she worked on passages each morning depending on how she woke up feeling that day.
“If I was sad about a moment or something was sitting heavy on me that morning, that’s what I would write about that day,” she said. “And I think that’s why I was able to put myself into each scene while writing them and hopefully recall as many details as possible.”
One of the 25-year-old’s hopes is that her story will encourage others to have more awareness when traveling outside of their country of origin.
“I just wanted people to know that just because a company is promoted and advertised doesn’t mean that it is safe or even legal,” she said.
Below, Schaffer shares more of what she hopes readers will learn from her story and how she approached writing it.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Stefanie Schaffer: There’s a few tough parts. I mean obviously at the beginning, like the day of the accident and the time following right after, I was either not awake for those memories or I maybe didn’t trust my memories because afterwards there were lots of medications and lots of trauma and confusion going on. So it was making sure I was interviewing the right people enough times to make sure everything was accurate. Then the editing of it was tough because when you are writing a memoir, you want to include absolutely everything because it all feels important to you. But you have to check in and see — does this really need to go in, or am I going off topic?
I knew that there were details that I wanted to include that I couldn’t write from my perspective. I don’t remember the first time I opened my eyes, but I remember it being a significant moment because my mom and I talk about it — the nurse being so excited to tell my mom not only had I opened my eyes when she wasn’t around but that the first person I asked for was her. I think that, not that we always wonder, but if something happens to you, what is going to be the first thing that you’re thinking of? And for it to have been my mom was pretty significant to me. So including that was important. But that came from talking to my mom. And on the day of the accident, it would have been too brief, I think, if it were just my memories. So that’s why I talked to everybody in the family, too. There’s brief parts from my sister, and that’s from her opening up a little bit about her unique experience, which I wanted to include because she was only 13 years old at the time. And for her to go through that, I just thought it needed to be in there. So it was just conversations and, not like interviewing, but just casual conversation.
Because I wanted to show that it wasn’t just a bullet point list of injuries. It’s so complex. And in TV shows and movies people wake up from a coma and they’re just awake and fine. And it’s terrible. It was painful and it was precise. My parents would watch the nurses and doctors decide how to reduce the medications because if they did it too fast, my vitals would go haywire. So it was a really delicate process. It’s not easy. So that was important. All of the — I call them the “ugly parts” — the hard parts, I felt like came from wanting to share the story because it had been so significant. And yet I felt like, particularly the island, kind of wanted to forget that it ever happened. So I felt like putting it in words and publishing it was saying, “Now we have to acknowledge this did happen and this is what happened to me.”
I feel like writing the book felt like taking control of the story. There was a long time where I felt like just a victim. It was something that had happened to me and I would say it was something that had been done to me, things that were inflicted. So taking it and writing about it and saying this is my voice and this is my story felt like taking a little bit of control over my life again.
And those chapters that you’re talking about, I mean, that was the most terrifying thing. Realizing I couldn’t even speak. I didn’t know that I had a trach tube through my throat. I had no idea why. I would go to scream and there’d be no sounds and I couldn’t understand. And that was probably — that time in the ICU — was more traumatizing to me than even the earlier times. And that felt important to share. Because I feel like that’s another group I’m going to reach is these people that have gone through similar situations and nobody knows how brutal it is on the body and mind all at once.
I didn’t want the whole book to be about the changes I had as a young woman because I wanted to really focus on the story. But I really wanted to make sure there were bits and pieces of it dropped in. Because it was so eye-opening to me that my entire life, I mean, I was only 22, but all those years, I had always hated my body. And I had been an athlete on varsity level sports teams and I hiked every day and I walked and ran every day. And I had this body that was perfectly healthy. And yet, we’re always critiquing ourselves and we’re always trying to look different and look like someone else or wishing this was thinner or whatever it is. And for the very first time, I couldn’t try to blend in anymore. It was like, “OK, I’m never going to blend in again. I’m obviously different now.”
So it was either hate everything about myself and be miserable for the rest of my life. Or it was really learn to actually like myself for the first time. And I feel more confident and comfortable in who I am now than I did before the injuries. I just think that’s sad. I know I wouldn’t have been the only person that feels that. It makes me sad that young women and young people of every gender go through those emotions.
Yes, it was definitely for myself to begin with. Because it had always been in my mind. The first thing everybody was saying to me was how much I could do with prosthetics, and I’m surrounding myself with amputees and I’m thinking all of this is possible. And then I get this sudden diagnosis of, you didn’t just break your back, but you have spinal cord injury. And the fact that my medical professionals hadn’t even noticed for a few months, mostly because I had been so hurt, but also because my legs, that would have shown it the clearest, were missing. So it was complicated to diagnose. But it was always this constant thought in my head, wondering what people were thinking about me and did they think I wasn’t working hard enough to be walking on my prosthetic legs? And did they wonder why I wasn’t doing all the things that other amputees do? And it made me really really insecure for a very long time.
So I do think that it brings awareness to people with paralysis. I also think it brings awareness to people with invisible disabilities that you can’t see or the people who are paraplegics but have some movement in their legs. I didn’t understand spinal cord injuries before my injury, so I would say, “I can’t have a spinal cord injury because I can move my legs some.” Not realizing it doesn’t mean that you’re completely paralyzed all of the time. Every spinal cord injury is unique … So many people don’t know … Yes, I can walk but it’s still really hard for me because I still am considered a paraplegic.
The legal issues were very frustrating. That was hard to write about because I had to write it truthfully, and yet, I still didn’t want to give up on that. But it was time. So that was really hard. Because I felt, not that I had failed, but it was so frustrating to me to not be able to get the result that I wanted for myself and for people in the future that are going to travel there. So I wished that I’d had a different ending to put into the book regarding the legal stuff. I wish that I had achieved some huge change in their systems and that we were now protected when we go there. And I didn’t have that to put in. So that was frustrating to write about.
I think little bits and pieces from my family, particularly my sister, were challenging but I wanted to include them because again — 13 years old and what she went through, that gets me very emotional. The fact that I almost wasn’t here to see her grow up for the rest of her life. That’s tough to write about.
It was important for me to write the book, like I said, to take control of the story and to have my voice back and to feel like I had made something of it. Something I always say is, I want my life not to be just defined by what happened to me, but I want it to be defined by where I’ve taken it. And I remember this one moment in the hospital thinking, “This is either going to be only the very worst thing that ever happened to me, or I can use this to make something of my life and of myself, and just have this unique story to share.” So that was important to me to feel like “OK, this happened to me, but I’ve now published a book about it.”
And then it really was not like a burden, but almost like a responsibility because I couldn’t make the changes that I hoped to in the legal systems … That search for justice, it started for myself and my family but then it went more into the next family. If I heard in the news that something like this happened again and I hadn’t tried to bring awareness to it, I would have not felt guilty, but I would have wished that I at least tried to bring awareness. So I’m hoping that whoever reads this at least has eyes opened to what is possible and what you can face in places.
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.