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SUSAN DENTZER: We last saw you the day you were discharged from Washington Hospital Center. Tell me about the road you’ve been on since then.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: It’s been such a long struggle back, but we’ve made it and really today feel stronger and have reached a state of new normal that we never really imagined was possible, looking back to those days getting out of the hospital in 2001.
SUSAN DENTZER: Let’s talk about the physical aspects of your recovery. When we last saw you, you were headed for … at least a year of physical therapy. … Tell me how that went.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: It was very grueling. The first year I started off with physical therapy three times a day, and then also was expected to work daily on my own at home, and it was very painful. Anyone who’s suffered critical burns really has a period [when] they get out of the hospital and … the battle’s not done, and [that] requires you to work through a lot of pain to regain the range of motion and work through some of the scarring issues, and we did that. My wife was very instrumental in giving me a lot of support at home, and it was a very painful process.
SUSAN DENTZER: We know that you had all of these skin grafts. Basically, what we’re looking at on your hand and arm is all skin graft, correct?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Yes, it is, and today I look at my hands and, of course, I wore burn garments for a period of just over a year. I took them off last December of 2002, and at that point I was able to put my rings on … When I got discharged, my wife was wearing my class ring from the Naval Academy around her neck, and on her finger she was wearing my wedding band. And on the day I was able to take off my burn garments, I was able to slip those rings back on my fingers where they properly belonged. And I look at my skin today and, of course, it’s so different than … before 9/11. But I’ve become more accepting of it. It took a little while, and that was a little bit of a process, but I’m very thrilled with my range of motion and how I’ve really bounced back with the pain.
SUSAN DENTZER: A job that you had for much of the last two years has been stretching that skin repeatedly, correct?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Yes. From very early on, my burn doctor, Dr. Marion Jordan from the Washington Hospital Center, told me that if I didn’t keep working my hands and keep flexing them, that I would very likely never be able to make a fist. And I was a very avid golfer before 9/11, and so the golf grip on the club is a very important part of your game. And I knew that if I ever wanted to play golf again, I had to heed his advice and his words. And so I worked very hard.
When I got home from the hospital I spent many weeks on the couch watching public television and C-Span and things like that, and always next to my side was a four-iron, or a golf club where I could work my hands around them, and at first I couldn’t get a full grip. But as the weeks and months passed, I was able to get that grip back, and for that I’m very thankful because I have today basically full range of motion, completely normal as it was before 9/11.
SUSAN DENTZER: You had burns over 40 percent of your body, most of which I think were third degree?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Yes.
SUSAN DENTZER: What about the rest of your body?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Well, the skin pain is gone. The skin grafts have healed. I finally stopped bleeding, and really didn’t stop bleeding from some of the open wounds that I had until November of 2002. So that took its toll both physically and, of course, emotionally, as my wife would have to change my dressings every day in areas that I couldn’t reach, and I told her at times, “I’m tired of bleeding,” and that finally passed. So that pain and the bleeding stopped, and I’m doing very well with the rest of my range of motion.
My pain that I feel today is really in my joints, in my fingers and in my elbows, due to the severe trauma of my injuries. It’s probably similar to severe arthritis, but I worked through those things and some of the other things that are left over from my injuries. I just worked through them all…
SUSAN DENTZER: What were these wounds that you had that were breaking open and bleeding?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Well, there were several. I kept repeatedly having breakouts of skin openings on my hands. As the skin was healing on my hands, some areas were grafted and some weren’t, and that was the intent of Dr. Jordan to allow whatever skin was possible to grow back, to grow back so that I would be more flexible. Had he grafted my entire hand, or both hands, they would have been much more rigid, and it would have been harder to get that motion back. But he left some of them ungrafted, and those areas repeatedly broke open, and repeatedly would bleed and get infected and things like that. And other areas were on my elbows where the skins grafts would just not take, and for months and months we would put new dressings on my elbows, and that definitely took its toll.
SUSAN DENTZER: What finally happened?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Finally, I had some more skin grafts on my elbows that they finally did take. We were so thankful for that. It was kind of an answer to some prayers. And eventually the skin on my hands got tough enough and it stopped breaking open and stopped bleeding, and really continued progressing from that point on.
SUSAN DENTZER: How many operations do you figure you had all told?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Really, we had more than 17 operations. Most of them were skin graft, or an operation they called debridement where they were preparing the skin surface, the burned areas for the skin grafts, and it was all told close to 20 probably.
SUSAN DENTZER: What kind of functional limitations do you have at this point?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: I have some nerve damage to the right side of my body, and in looking at it we think that maybe as I was blown to the ground in that initial blast, I may have gotten caught up on some office furniture, and I have some numbness in my right hand and going down into my right leg and lower extremities. But really it doesn’t limit me from doing too much because I work my way through everything.
We have a brand new baby girl, little Sophia. She’s just three weeks old, and anything that I need to do that requires a delicate touch I do it with my left hand and not my right hand.
SUSAN DENTZER: So given the Kevin Schaeffer of September 10, 2001, and the Kevin Schaeffer today, physically, what’s the difference?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Well, physically I’m a very different person than I was on September 10th, 2001. I like to say that I was one person then and I’m quite a different person now.
I have a lot of scaring on my back, on my arms, of course, that have been fully grafted, and a bit on my face. My complexion is completely different. The skin that’s on my face today is very different skin than existed before … prior to 9/11 I just had a very smooth complexion, and had a darker complexion than I do today, and these are all kind of real trivial matters because I don’t have thick scaring on my face and whatnot, but it is quite different. So if you look at pictures of me prior to 9/11 and me today, it’s quite noticeable.
I have gained a lot of weight since 9/11, and it’s something that I’m working on. As I increase my stamina and work out cardio-vascularly, I am trying to lose that weight. But I had severe lung damage as well, in addition to my burns, as I ingested the jet fuel as flight 77 exploded into my space at Navy Command Center. So I’ve been really working through those issues and trying to get back into shape, both physically with my burns, but also with my lungs.
SUSAN DENTZER: Do you have difficulty breathing?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: I really haven’t experienced too much difficulty breathing. I did in the early stages. Again, it’s something that I’ve worked through and my stamina has really bounced back, I think, better than even the doctors had predicted.
The day I was discharged from the hospital, Dr. Jordan told me that I very likely had the lungs of a 55-year-old lifelong smoker. And at the time to be 29 years old and just several months prior to being in excellent physical shape. I was an all American soccer player in high school. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon when I was at the Naval Academy, and to be told that was very hard to take.
My wife and I looked at each other and I said, “Well, I can’t change that. I can only work through it.” And I’ve really bounced back since then, and I guarantee today I don’t have the lungs of a 55-year-old lifelong smoker.
SUSAN DENTZER: You’re a lot closer to the 29-year-old athlete you were.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Yes. I’m feeling my age a little bit more than I probably would be at this point just based on everything that I’ve been through, but in that way, yes, I’ve bounced back tremendously well.
SUSAN DENTZER: Let’s talk about the emotional aspects of this recovery. Tell me how that went starting again from when we saw you back in December of 2001 to now.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Emotionally, there was so much support and love during my time in the hospital, first and foremost from my wife, Blanca, and then from family and close friends, but also just from Americans who expressed their support through prayers and letter of encouragement, and that really helped me get through that period emotionally.
It was several weeks after the attacks when I found out that everyone in my branch was killed, and that 29 individuals in the Navy Command Center were killed. That was very hard to take, but in the shock of the moment, and really having the focus on physically healing first, I was able to put off those emotional pains and emotional scars, and I did have to deal with them eventually as we progressed and as I progressed over the physical healing. I got to a point where then it was time to focus on the emotional healing, and it was very difficult.
I went through a period of severe nightmares, and I had a lot of issues because I was such a changed person. I had problems dealing with that, to be honest, and it’s something that I’m very thankful for, and feel blessed that I’ve been able to channel a lot of that emotional recovery into looking at the positive silver-lining of my situation, recognized that I’m here today with my wife and our daughter, and focus on the good things and not so much on the negative things.
A big part of my emotional recovery was getting through the pain of the loss of that day. We in the Navy lost so much but, of course, the nation suffered so greatly as well. I lost close colleagues and very close friends. They were husbands to wonderful families. They had wives who were pregnant at the time on 9/11, and we’ve kept in touch, and they’re such special people and feeling their loss certainly impacted me and my family.
SUSAN DENTZER: Did you do all of this emotional healing on your own, or did you get some professional help?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Most of it was certainly on my own, and as a family we got through it. There were times when I just needed to talk to someone, and I did that, and there were several counseling sessions that I had where I just really needed to vent some of the emotions that I was feeling.
The nightmares were a difficult challenging period, and that was something that I was seeking professional help to get through, because they were very disruptive to my healing process because I wasn’t sleeping well, and it was a time when I still actually needed physically to do some more healing. And I think it helped, and it was just always nice to know that there was someone there to speak to. But for the most part, we relied on each other, my wife and I. We relied on our family, we relied on our faith and friends, and I think that those things played the most important role of bouncing back emotionally.
SUSAN DENTZER: Tell me how you made the decision to go back to work.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Initially, and this goes back to the summer of last year, I really started focusing on the goal of getting back to work. I had been retired from the Navy on October 4, 2001, the day I had two cardiac arrests, and I knew that my career in the Navy was over as a naval officer. And as I looked to the future, I was very young, and I am very young, and I wanted to dedicate myself to something meaningful based on my experiences.
The National Commission was created out of a lot of strong-willed family members who lost loved ones that day, and back in November of 2002, Congress passed a bill that created the commission. I was there actually on Capitol Hill the week prior watching the debate on the Homeland Security Department, and whether or not that department would be created. So I was very involved with the current events of the day.
SUSAN DENTZER: You were hired onto the commission. Tell me what your job is there.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: My job on the commission is working with the team that is assessing the nation’s response to the attacks, and a sense of the emergency response and crisis management of that day, and for a brief period thereafter. We’re looking at how the national leadership responded as well as the federal, state, and local first responders in hopes of learning every lesson of the response so that if we cannot prevent another attack like 9/11 from occurring, we can be better prepared in the future to save lives.
SUSAN DENTZER: You recently took a trip to Ground Zero. Tell me about that.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: It was a very moving trip. I had been back several times through some work for the commission, but just a week ago was up there in New York and actually got to venture into the heart of Ground Zero, and it was very moving to be there, and to see the magnitude of what happened. Of course, today it looks so much different than it did two years ago, and as I recall in the hospital room seeing the images on TV, it really was impossible to have a full understanding and a full realization of what happened on the ground. And to stand there was quite moving.
Of course, I thought of all those who were lost there that day. I thought of the loved ones who survived them, and how they grieve today in that loss, and what that must feel like, and my prayers and the prayers of my family are with them.
It was very moving. It also was very remindful of what our purpose is for the National Commission, exactly what we’re chartered to do, and the most important part of that charter is to learn every lesson to prevent such a terrorist attack from occurring again. If we can do that and make this country safer, then we’ve been successful.
SUSAN DENTZER: Analyze this from the enormous analytical perspective. I know that you brought to bear on your job at the Pentagon charting naval strategy. Your job was to look at all the facts, analyze it as critically as possible. Tell me about what makes a person who suffered through 9/11 go back and serve on a commission to study what happened on 9/11.
KEVIN SHAEFFER: What made me go back and what drives me — I think it’s an inner strength that I possess, that I never gave up and I never will give up, and I look at our current state since the 9/11 attacks and they’re very real threats to our nation’s security, and whatever passions and motivations or lessons that I stand for and that I can bring to the commission, and bring forward in the future, those are things that I want to convey, and convey not only now, but for the rest of my life.
I’ve very much tried to ascribe some greater meaning to what happened to me, and to why I survived, and why maybe some of my other colleagues in the office didn’t survive, and I know this — that those questions will never be satisfactorily answered in this lifetime, and that’s something that I’ve accepted, and I just look forward to making a difference in the future, and that’s really why I’m part of this commission, and [hopefully] someday I’ll be able to contribute to homeland security or counter-terrorism, and try to make this country and the world a safer place.
SUSAN DENTZER: And what about your own recovery? What’s the lesson of your own recovery?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: The lesson of my own recovery is probably one of never give up. Never give up when things get so tough that you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Never give up when you feel that you’re at such a bottom point that you want to quit, because if you never give up, then you can achieve things you can never really honor — you can never really realize in the moment.
There were so many times when I was in the hospital struggling just to make it through each breath. Many people would want to talk about the week, or the two weeks after getting out of the hospital, and I’d always stop them and say, “No, we can only focus on today, and I can only concentrate on this hour. And for those who are suffering great pains right now, just know that this, too, shall pass.”
That’s something that Blanca used to say to me quite often — this, too, shall pass. And it will, and it will get better, and if you never give up, then you can make it through just about anything.
SUSAN DENTZER: I just want to read you one comment that you made to us back in 2001. You said, “You’re never the same the day after an injury like this as you were before. But you need to realize that, accept that you can’t change it, and try to work as hard as you can to get back to that point and make the best out of that situation.” Do you believe that still today?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Oh, I do believe it today, and I feel like since I made those comments, I’ve lived every day in accordance with what I said, and I plan on living every day just the same. It’s something that when you go through something like this, you know that you can’t change it. You can’t sit around and say what if.
There were times when I thought and let my brain go to the point where I would say if I had gotten a cup of coffee with my colleagues in the office that morning, maybe I would have been out of harm’s way. But I can’t change what has happened to me, and we can’t bring back those who were lost that day. We just need to move forward with the love and togetherness that will get us through the future, and that’s something that I and my family very much focus on, and that’s how we plan on living our lives.
SUSAN DENTZER: And how do you feel about [your daughter] in relation to everything that you’ve been through over these last two years?
KEVIN SHAEFFER: Well, for the longest time I didn’t ever think that we’d become a family like this, and she very much is our miracle baby. Friends who have had children, we have seen that impact their lives in such great ways, and they tell us that you never know how it feels until it happens to you, and that’s true. And to know that Blanca and I together, our love created this little – precious little being, it means so much. It means so much thinking back to all that we’ve been through, and what I’ve been through, and I think it’s just another lesson in that no matter how bad things get, they can get better, and this is certainly one of the best things that’s ever happened to us.