Family and friends know Samantha and C.J. Schaffer as giving people, not the sort to ask for anything.
When Samantha Schaffer experienced multiple organ failure and near blindness after delivering the couple’s baby boy in late July, the couple had a big ask.
Friends, family and complete strangers responded big, donating more than $60,000 to a Gofundme.com page that one of C.J. Schaffer’s best friends set up. Later, after someone notified actress Kristen Bell’s company, Hello Bello, about the crowdfunding campaign, Bell announced that the company would donate a year’s worth of diapers and wipes to the Schaffers.
The 631 online donations — many accompanied by words of love and support — was no surprise to Courtney Peery, Samantha Schaffer’s friend from childhood and teaching colleague at South Salem Elementary School. Schaffer and her husband are the types to reach out and make sure people are cared for, Peery said.
“It’s hard to even put into words, because I just see how much she cares for other people, and how she would never ask for help,” Peery said. “But that’s what everyone wants to do for her, because she has made them feel so special along the way.
“Of all the people who would have to go through something like this, I never imagined her, and that’s the scary thing about all of this.”
Samantha Schaffer, 35, is back home in Hollins and continues to recover. Her liver and lungs are back to normal, her sight has returned and her blood pressure has improved, but she still faces dialysis three times a week, along with a medicine infusion biweekly. It remains unclear whether her kidney function will return. She has not been able to work this school year and doesn’t know when she can return.
Their son, Anderson James Schaffer, is healthy and happy at 4 months old. They had been trying to get pregnant for five of their eight years of marriage, and were successful after in vitro fertilization. The pregnancy and delivery were both easy. But as soon as she delivered, there was trouble.
Ultimately, doctors determined that she had suffered HELLP Syndrome, a rare condition that usually happens during pregnancy but sometimes after delivery. The name is an acronym for the symptoms, hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes and a low platelet count, according to the website Preeclampsia.org. Only one or two in 1,000 women experience the syndrome, with about 25% of them facing serious, even fatal, complications, according to Marchofdimes.org.
Doctors gave her a second diagnosis of atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, which causes blood clots in small vessels in the kidneys, according to a National Institutes of Health website focusing on rare diseases.
There was no indication during the pregnancy that there would be any issues, Samantha Schaffer said.
“We were like, everything has to be perfect,” she recalled. “This is our chance. We finally were pregnant.
“Even in delivery, it was such a positive experience. Delivery was easy, and the doctor was amazing and encouraging. You felt safe. Then it was my body’s time to say it’s not going to do what it’s supposed to do.
“I was like, we thought getting pregnant was going to be the most challenging thing. Who would have thought this? I laugh and I’m like: I prayed for a wonderful pregnancy; I prayed for a wonderful delivery. And I got all that. I just didn’t realize I needed to pray for after.
“I had my healthy baby, and that was all that mattered. And I still do. So I would do it over and over again, just to get to have him.”
She credits her husband with splitting time at LewisGale Medical Center between her and their child, while explaining to her much of what he was learning about what had happened to her.
C.J. Schaffer, 39, a paramedic and a captain at the Salem Fire Department’s technical rescue station, said that he communicated with staff at LewisGale and the University of Virginia, where his wife was transferred after a week. He dug into every piece of research he could find, in order to break it down for her.
At the same time, he felt that time was a blur as he was faced with losing his best friend and the mother of his child, he said.
“You just try to be your own best advocate and help your wife and your best friend the best you can, with the most knowledge and know-how,” he said.
Through it all, Samantha Schaffer maintained an unimaginable grace, he said.
“Every day’s a battle, and she does it amazingly, with the best attitude, the most sunshine,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “You wouldn’t think somebody would be able to have that, going through it. But she finds it, and she does it.”
They consider themselves to be private people and were not interested in the attention that a crowdfunding campaign would bring them. Ultimately, two of C.J.’s best friends and fire department colleagues, Jason Loving and Matt Rickman, persuaded them. Rickman administered the Gofundme page.
“We’d rather be focused on the good stuff in life and helping whoever we can help and doing whatever good we can do,” C.J. Schaffer said. “Our worries don’t need to be sprinkled out into the world, because there’s enough worries going on with other people.”
The attention was embarrassing at times, and humbling, he said. But as he read comment after comment from his wife’s friends, colleagues, former students and students’ parents, his heart filled.
“I don’t care how big and tough and strong you think you are, you hear that stuff and it just blows your mind,” he said. “I’m not afraid to admit that I married up, big time.”
Samantha’s mother, Lynn Shively, cared for the baby after he left the hospital and while the Schaffers were in Charlottesville. She moved in with them after they returned home, to continue taking care of him.
“For a long time, I couldn’t do much at all but take care of myself,” Samantha Schaffer said. “She has quarantined and stuck with us since she brought him home.”
As word got around about the crowdfunding drive, someone anonymously encouraged Hello Bello, which Bell owns with her actor husband, Dax Shepard, and others, to consider the Schaffers for its #givingtuesday campaign. A company representative contacted C.J. Schaffer, and in early November, Bell announced via Instagram that the family would receive the gift bundles.
“It was humbling, of course, and kind of blew you away that we were given this opportunity in such a crazy time, for sure,” Samantha Schaffer said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has prevented the family from socializing in person with Anderson. Phone calls, texts, and the Facetime app have helped, she said.
Peery, who has taught fifth grade while Samantha taught fourth, was assigned to teach fourth grade this year and was excited to share that experience with her friend, in what would have been the ninth year at South Salem for them both. Instead, they’ve had to settle for phone communications. Their children have met each other over Facetime, Peery said.
“That’s been a saving grace,” Samantha Schaffer said of seeing friends’ faces, digitally.
As Thanksgiving approached, she was trying to figure out how best to thank the hundreds of people who donated to help them with medical bills that will go beyond what insurance will cover.
“We’ve come a long way, and a lot of days are easy, because I have a lot to be thankful for, and I’m here, and that’s the biggest thing,” she said. “I have my son and my family. But some days are hard, because you’re like, this is real life. This is not what I envisioned.
“Honestly, we sit and reflect often about … the pandemic and not being able to be back with my school family and not being able to share our joy with family, and just knowing how many people that have rallied [for us] that I don’t even know.
“It’s just amazing that people can love you so big, you know.”