Finding out your child has been severely wounded in combat is something no mother can prepare for. In fact, the news alone can be just as traumatic to the parent as the actual injury was to her son or daughter.
Luana Schneider, guest speaker at the second annual USO Wounded Warrior and Family Caregivers Conference this week, is all too familiar.
Just two days after Thanksgiving in 2006, she learned that her son, Army Staff Sgt. Scott Stephenson, had been “hit” by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
She was told that he was severely wounded and badly burned. She was also told her son was going to die.
Two days later her son was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Tex. She was at her home in Kansas when she got a call from the hospital.
“He’s not responding,” a male nurse said desperately over the phone. “You need to get here now.”
“What do you mean he’s not responding?” Schneider frantically replied. “What are you calling him?”
“Robert. That’s what his medical records say,” the nurse said.
“He doesn’t go by Robert,” she said. “Call him Scott. Call him Scotty. Call him Bubby Bubble-Butt! That was his nickname as a kid. she said, sobbing.
“For God’s sake, don’t call him Robert, nobody calls him that,” the panicked mom added.
“Hold on,” the nurse said as he shouted in the background. “Scotty! Wake up! Scotty! Wake up, open your eyes and show me you’re alive!”
Scotty opened his eyes.
“He’s responding,” said the nurse. “You need to get here now.”
She was on the next flight – crying the whole way.
She realized in the air that only she could have known how to get Scott’s attention in that critical second. Only she could give Scott the attention he needed to stay alive.
“Reality sucks,” Schneider said, reflecting on the moment she received that horrific phone call. “Even though I was waiting for that sort of call, I wasn’t ready for it. Nobody is.”
When she arrived at the medical center, she didn’t even recognize her own son.
“He was in pieces. Swollen. Bloody. Burned,” she said. “I thought it was going to be bad but it was way worse.”
The reality of the situation was beginning to settle in. Her son would need an extraordinary amount of care for a long, long time. She would need to drop everything to do anything he needed.
“They told me when I got to the hospital that this would make me or break me,” Schneider said. “And you have to be honest with yourself and admit it – bow out – if you can’t handle it. Because the last thing you want to do is make your loved one suffer because you can’t handle it.
“It’s not about you,” she added. “It’s about your child, your husband, your sister or your brother.”
Her son would undergo kidney bypass, several major operations to remove shrapnel, and skin grafts to repair the burns that covered more than 60 percent of his body. Staff Sgt. Stephenson would eventually have his charred left leg amputated without the hope of a prosthetic, as his burned skin was “just too fragile.”
“When you have an adult child that you have to lift, you have to carry, you have to hold, have to bathe … the things that you have to do change you. I’ve had to scrub my child ‘till he bleeds,” Stephenson’s mother and caregiver said. “That creates this intimacy that normal people cannot comprehend. An intimacy that, while amazing how it bonds us today, I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.”
Adjusting to a “new normal” has taken time for Scott and his mom, but it’s a certain balance, a certain patience, and a certain resiliency of a strong caregiver like Luana that has made it possible for him to recover.
His unique injuries required the blazing of new paths. With no road map, an empathetic caregiver like Luana became absolutely essential for Scott’s survival.
“She’s a warrior,” Staff Sgt. Stephenson said of his mother. “She didn’t visit me in the hospital, she lived there. We’re closer now than we’ve ever been.”
It has taken years to find “new normal,” but she and Scott declared there is indeed hope for those just getting started down the road to recovery.
“It’s not something you would ever see coming, but it’s something you accept fully or not at all,” Schneider said. “At this point in my life I was looking forward to traveling with my husband. I thought, ‘We raised six, they are out of the house, we’re good, and we’re on our way!’
“It didn’t turn out that way,” the mother said, shaking her head. “It didn’t turn out that way.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer
Staff Sgt. Scott Stephenson