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Recovering

September 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The hard road back for one victim of 9/11 reported by Susan Dentzer of our health unit, a partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

SUSAN DENTZER: This was Navy Lt. Kevin Shaeffer just weeks after he was injured at the Pentagon on 9/11.

This is Kevin Shaeffer today, with his newborn baby.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: This is little Sophia Bella. She turned three weeks old this past Sunday. She was born on August 17. She came a little bit early, but she’s healthy as can be and she’s our little angel.

SUSAN DENTZER: The road to physical and emotional recovery has been lengthy for Shaeffer, now 31, and his wife, Blanca.

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 this case, getting out of the hospital in 2001.

BLANCA SHAEFFER: Having Sophia here is the best thing that has happened to us. She is everything that is good, that is innocent, that’s beautiful in our lives.

SUSAN DENTZER: Shaeffer was at his old job at the Pentagon on 9/11, helping to chart strategy for the chief of naval operations. He and colleagues in the navy command center were watching coverage of the New York attacks when the plane hit; 29 people in the same office were killed instantly, some just a few feet from Shaeffer. Miraculously, he survived.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: When the explosion struck, I think I kind of knew that it wasn’t my time, and I had to keep moving, and I had to find a way out, and then once I did, and once I was on the ambulance and heading towards the hospital and at the hospital, I kept saying, “I’m alive.”

SUSAN DENTZER: Shaeffer suffered second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body, mostly on his head and arms. He later underwent nearly 20 operations to shave off his badly burned skin; it was replaced with skin grafts from elsewhere on his body. Shaeffer also had severe lung damage from inhaling jet fuel. Three weeks after the attack, he suffered two cardiac arrests in one day and almost died. After he left the hospital, a full year of regular physical therapy followed. Shaeffer wore pressure bandages on his hands and arms to help stretch his grafted skin.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: Anyone who’s suffered critical burns really has a period that they get out of the hospital and then it’s not done yet. The battle’s not done, and requires you to work through a lot of pain to regain the range of motion and work through some of the scarring issues.

SUSAN DENTZER: So given the Kevin Shaeffer of September 10, 2001, and the Kevin Shaeffer today, physically, what’s the difference?

KEVIN SHAEFFER: I like to say that I was one person then and I’m quite a different person now. I look at my skin today and of course, it’s so different than I was before 9/11. But I’ve become more accepting of it.

BLANCA SHAEFFER: His scarring has healed beautifully. You look at his face, and you know that he’s gone through something, but you’d never guess that he was actually burned as badly as he was.

SUSAN DENTZER: Shaeffer lost part of one ear, and a tracheotomy scar is still visible on his neck– the legacy of weeks on a ventilator. But the frequent bleeding from his elbows and hands has finally stopped. Shaeffer says these and other small triumphs have meant a lot.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: 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. When I got home from the hospital, in fact, 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 at first I couldn’t get a full grip.

SUSAN DENTZER: But nowadays, when Shaeffer plays golf, he can.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: But as the weeks and months passed, I was able to get that grip back, and for that I’m very thankful.

SUSAN DENTZER: Another highlight came last December, when Shaeffer was able to put on his wedding band and naval academy class ring for the first time since the attack. Blanca, a navy lieutenant and fellow midshipman, had been wearing them on a chain around her neck.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: 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.

BLANCA SHAEFFER: That was… that was a huge milestone. Huge.

SUSAN DENTZER: As his physical recovery progressed slowly, his emotional recovery took even longer. Shaeffer suffered through a period of debilitating nightmares.

BLANCA SHAEFFER: He would wake up in the middle of the night sobbing, absolutely sobbing uncontrollably, like I had never seen him do before, and it was night after night after night.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: I really did hit bottom probably in August of 2002. My wife and I were traveling in D.C. I was taking her to work one day, and I dropped her off. And as I was driving through the city alone, really for the first time since 9/11, I had a moment that I could only describe as a… as a panic attack where I just felt entirely out of control emotionally and physically, began crying and sobbing.

SUSAN DENTZER: Shaeffer says he felt better after several long talks with a counselor. The nightmares became less frequent. By last fall he was well enough to start a new job. Medically retired from the navy in 2001, Shaeffer is now a professional staff member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. Informally it’s the 9/11 Commission. We asked him why he took this job of all jobs.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: No one has suffered the pain that I’ve suffered at the hands of terrorists. To survive that is something that I think allows me to go forward with a very strong message. 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.

SUSAN DENTZER: We also asked Shaeffer what lessons he’s learned from his recovery.

KEVIN SHAEFFER: 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.

SUSAN DENTZER: And at the same time, Shaeffer says, never forget.

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