How Stefanie Schaffer is recovering a year after surviving a deadly tour boat explosion in the Bahamas

“When I hear about how bad I was and how bad the circumstances were, it honestly just doesn't make sense to me how I survived.”

Stefanie Schaffer. —Courtesy of Stefanie Schaffer

There is black ink just above Stefanie Schaffer’s left elbow that slants in graceful script to form one word — “miracle.”

It’s a term that the 23-year-old has heard often in the last year.

From her hospital bed in Florida, she listened to the attending physicians tell their residents outside her door, “The girl in this room is a miracle.”

“It took me a long time to sort of realize that it actually was,” Schaffer said from a different hospital bed, almost a year after a tour boat explosion in the Bahamas changed her life.  “And I really don’t understand how I survived. When I hear about how bad I was and how bad the circumstances were, it honestly just doesn’t make sense to me how I survived.”

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Schaffer, along with her younger sister, mother, and stepfather, were on their way to see the swimming pigs of the Exuma Cays on June 30, 2018. Shortly after departure, the boat, which was carrying two crew members and 10 American passengers including the family from Rutland, Vermont, exploded.

One of the passengers, Maleka Jackson of Atlanta, Georgia, who was on a trip celebrating her 15th wedding anniversary with her husband, died from her injuries. Her husband, Tiran, was severely injured and had to have his left foot amputated.

Stacey Bender, Schaffer’s mother, was thrown from the boat and suffered a collapsed lung and fractures to her leg, wrist, and ribs.

Schaffer, who was found under wreckage from the explosion, was medevacked first to a hospital in Nassau and later airlifted to Florida. Both her lower legs had to be amputated, and she suffered a burst fracture in her back and other broken bones.

She spent more than a week in a medically-induced coma and experienced kidney failure.  

At first, Schaffer said she couldn’t remember anything when she woke up.

“I didn’t even remember that we had been there,” she said. “Now I remember getting onto the boat that day and getting there early that morning. And I remember the trip starting, but then I don’t remember hearing anything or seeing anything really happen.”

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What she does remember are the feelings she was having — thinking she was dying.

“I’ll get panicky sometimes, and I’m like, ‘Why am I panicking?’ Because I can’t even remember,” Schaffer said. “I think actually that not knowing for me has actually been worse — because it has such a significant impact on my life that I want to know… it just feels wrong to not know what happened to make my life change like this.”

She still constantly asks for details of the explosion. From her mom and from her stepfather. From the family friends who were with them and helped find a pickup truck to rush her to the hospital.

“I really do almost have this like need to know the details,” Schaffer said. “And they’re not afraid to tell me what they saw. And I think a lot of people who might have been in their position might have been scared to tell me, scared to hurt me more. But it makes me feel better when they tell me, and I can just appreciate how much they helped me.”

Her 14-year-old sister, Brooke, tried to keep her calm and still during the 45-minute race across the island’s small roads.

“She remembers everything,” Bender said of her younger daughter. “So from that standpoint, of the trauma and the flashbacks, it’s the hardest probably on her.”

Schaffer said she believes her sister’s efforts that day saved her life, or at the very least kept her from becoming paralyzed. With a burst fracture in her back, loose pieces of bone were in her spinal cord, and Brooke wouldn’t let her sit up in the truck.

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“If she had let me, I probably would have gotten it worse,” Schaffer said. “I don’t even know what the outcome would have been — but I don’t think it would have been great.”

When she was informed of the extent of her injuries — that her legs had been amputated below the knees — while in the hospital in Florida, Schaffer said it didn’t really sink in or make sense to her.

It didn’t feel real.

“It took seeing videos of the explosion to understand that I had been on that,” she said.

It wasn’t until she and her family arrived in Boston, where she underwent care at Spaulding, that her new reality — and what she had gone through — began to sink in.

Schaffer said she was in a “bad place” for a while.

“I felt so broken, I couldn’t move at all from laying in a coma and laying in bed for so long,” she said. “I had lost even the muscles to be able to sit up on my own. So I couldn’t understand — it didn’t even feel worth it at the time. I know it sounds terrible to say. But I was, in a way, angry that I was stuck in this body that I didn’t want.”

Mandatory sessions with psychiatrists and social workers are what helped her to move forward.

“When I said the words out loud — that I was angry that people hadn’t just left me — when I heard myself say that, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what are you saying? You’re alive,’” Schaffer said.

That moment was when everything switched.

After that, instead of watching funny shows and not being able to laugh, she was the one making jokes and bonding with her nurses.

“All of a sudden, I was just OK,” Schaffer said.

Five months to the day after the explosion, Schaffer returned home to Vermont, which presented its own reminders of how her life had changed.

The last time she had been home, she had been running up and down the stairs, not knowing that anything bad was about to happen to her, she recalled.

In those early days, she would fall, trying to do something that hadn’t been as challenging in a hospital setting.

“I think for the first week or two I would just lay in bed and cry every day,” Schaffer said. “Then once again, you’re sort of thrown into a hard situation and you have to make it work. It’s not comfortable and it’s hard, but all of sudden it just becomes comfortable again.”

Overall, her recovery had been going well, she said.

The 24-year-old has thrown herself into physical therapy, working with a woman who has become like a big sister to her. She’d worked up to using crutches, instead of using a walker or her wheelchair.

A group of local car dealerships gave her a car, modified so she could drive it. She’d started doing adaptive sports, using a hand-cranked bicycle, which helped keep her spirits up. Schaffer was a dancer until she was 15 and had played soccer all through high school.

“I was getting a lot more independent — I was driving on my own,” Schaffer said. “Everything had been going really great.”

Except for her right knee, which she said had “locked up” due to the trauma she’d undergone. It made it difficult for her to climb stairs or to sit down, and her doctors recently decided it was permanent.

Last week, she underwent an above-knee amputation at Massachusetts General Hospital. She’ll be able to jump back into physical therapy, she said, to keep moving, but will have to wait eight weeks to get fitted for her new prosthetic leg with a microprocessor knee.

And as the anniversary of the explosion approaches, Schaffer said she is focused on walking again without the aid of crutches.

“Most of the time I’m so sure and I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to walk again,” Schaffer said. “But there’s always that little voice of doubt that creeps in at the worst of times.”

When that happens, she heads to physical therapy. When she’s moving, she said she feels strong. That’s one of the motivators for getting more involved in adaptive sports.

“It sounds funny, but I miss being competitive,” Schaffer said. “With sports, I loved it. I loved being competitive, and I always wanted to play for the best team and win the game, score a goal. You feel sort of useless when you can’t be. And I watch my little sister play all these sports, and I’m like — I miss it more than anything.”  

The owner of the tour company, Four C’s Adventures, and the captain of the boat, are both facing charges of manslaughter by negligence and nine counts of causing harm by negligence in the Bahamas.

An attorney representing the two men did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blake Dolman, a lawyer with the firm Krupnick and Campbell that is representing Schaffer and her family, told Boston.com in a statement that “all available legal recourse” in both the United States and the Bahamas is being considered at this time.

“Our investigation has revealed substantial wrongdoing by a disturbing number of individuals, businesses and government entities,” he said. “There is no question that a number of parties could have taken action which would have prevented this senseless tragedy. It has become abundantly clear that the Bahamian government and its highest ranking officials simply do not care to make any meaningful effort to ensure the safety of tourists who visit the country and support its economy. Sadly, the Bahamian attorney general and minister of tourism have chosen to add insult to injury by completely ignoring and disregarding all correspondence and phone calls on behalf of the victims and their families.”

From her hospital bed at Mass. General, Schaffer said she wants to see some acknowledgement that something wrong was done.

“That’s all I really want,” she said. “I just want someone to stand up and say, ‘We’re sorry.’”

The ongoing support from the community surrounding them in Vermont, and the doctors and nurses and hospital staff that became like family, remain the “bright spots” in the last year, Bender said.

“People are what get you through,” she said.

That includes the people who come up to Schaffer when the family is out in public and tell her they know her story, that they’re inspired by her.

The 24-year-old said that having her experience be widely known helped her when she went home — she didn’t have to explain what had happened. And it means a lot to her to hear from people that they find her inspiring — though she says all she’s been doing is “survive and recover.”

“When I have a bad day, I can sort of remember when everybody has told me that,” Schaffer said. “And the times that I do just want to crawl into bed and pull the covers up and not get out, I just think of all the people that have said things to me like that. And I’m like, no you got to get up, you’ve got to keep doing this because people believe in you.”  

Schaffer will soon be graduating from Castleton University, where she has been studying public health. Next, she said she wants to get a master’s degree, most likely in social work, so that she can become a counselor for people who have experienced trauma.

She doesn’t think she would have been able to recover physically if she hadn’t recovered emotionally with the help of social workers and psychiatrists.

“Now that I’ve gotten to a better place, I feel like there has to be a reason that this all happened and I think since I’m able to handle it well, maybe it happened to me for a reason,” Schaffer said. “To handle it well and to show other people how to handle it well. And just be OK with living this new life. It really is a miracle that I’m alive.”

Already, her advice for people who have suffered trauma is to “focus on the good.” Nothing is comfortable the first time you try it, she said, but the harder you work in recovery the better you’ll feel mentally. And soon, it will become more comfortable and more normal.

If there’s one thing she wants people to learn from her experience, it’s that you should be grateful for every moment.

“I wasn’t doing anything dangerous or risky,” she said. “I lived a very normal and safe life. I walked onto a boat and sat in the wrong seat. And my life turned completely upside down in ways I never would have expected and I could have died.  And my family members could have died. And it really shows how important it is to be kind to other people and to tell people you love and appreciate them and show respect for people who have cared for you. And just be a good person. Because you don’t know what could happen to you.”