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By Lorraine Sanders
Sitting on the floor of her family room on a recent Sunday afternoon and knitting a white scarf, high school sophomore Loren Schaller does not look like someone who's spent the last eight months recovering from a violent attack by a mentally disturbed ex-convict that left her without the use of one arm.
But that's Loren Schaller: calm, creative, and resilient.
"We've all had to think, How would we be in that situation?--literally bleeding to death on the floor," asks Loren's mom, Linda Schaller, who, along with her husband Tim, has lived in the family's Hoffman Avenue home since well before their daughter was born.
When Loren, a student at the Bay School who celebrates her 16th birthday in January, received multiple life-threatening stab wounds on May 19 as she stood in line at Creighton's Bakery on Portola Drive, she managed to remain conscious as local doctor Sang-ick Chang, who had been grocery shopping nearby, came to her aid. As she was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital, she was able to talk to the emergency workers helping her and even had the wherewithal to recite her allergies and worry about a favorite pair of jeans that were cut off during the ordeal.
"She didn't want her jeans cut off because she'd paid for them," Linda explains.
Along with Chang, two other local residents were quick to help at the scene. Kermit Kubitz fought off Loren's attacker, later identified as 26-year-old Scott Thomas, and suffered stab wounds and a collapsed lung for his efforts. When Thomas, who was mistakenly released from San Quentin Prison the day before the attack, fled the bakery on foot, Jonas Svallin, who had been standing outside the Starbucks next-door, commenced a half-mile chase after Thomas. Svallin also alerted the police, who then apprehended Thomas.
Svallin, Chang, and Kubitz were honored with special commendations from the San Francisco Police Commission on Aug. 8. Noe Valley residents further honored the three heroes at a community blood drive held in September at St. Philip's Church.
"We're really grateful for all the people who've helped us in so many ways," Linda says.
Adds Tim, "That's a big part of why we love it here. There's no negative feeling about this area."
Daughter's Health Comes First
Since May, the Schaller family has been focused on two things. The first is Loren's recovery. She has undergone multiple surgeries, including several the day of the attack, one during the summer at UCSF Medical Center and Children's Hospital, and a 91/2-hour nerve transplant procedure in October at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Loren also visits a chiropractor to help with the strain on her body caused by her limp right arm. She attends scar tissue massage therapy sessions and underwent therapy to regain use of her left hand, which was left in a splint after the attack.
The most recent surgery went smoothly, but whether it will successfully return movement to Loren's arm is unknown. The Schallers say doctors have told them that nerves grow at a rate of approximately one inch per month. If the surgery is successful, Loren will begin to feel the twitch of nerve growth by January, but won't regain a full range of movement until the nerves have had time to regenerate down the length of her arm.
"Hopefully, by next summer, it will be well under way," Linda says.
Besides working tirelessly to manage Loren's recovery, as well as the family's emotional healing process, Linda and Tim have spent the last eight months wrestling with another issue: How did this tragic event happen in the first place?
"It was just outrageous recklessness all over the place," Tim says.
According to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials and a report investigating the incident published by the State Office of the Inspector General in October, a litany of procedural mistakes preceded Thomas's unsupervised release from San Quentin on May 18.
A repeat criminal with a history of bipolar disorder serving his ninth prison stint and third at San Quentin since 2000, Thomas was allegedly held in solitary confinement at San Quentin during his most recent stay. Also, according to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle, he was never treated for his mental illness while in prison custody.
"It makes the mistakes even harder to believe the more we find out about how much help he needed," Linda says of Thomas.
Schallers Seek Damages
Although assault on a guard at another prison resulted in a 2002 designation of Thomas as a "high-control" prisoner required to have face-to-face contact with his parole officer within 24 hours of his release, San Quentin staff released him on a Friday. High-control inmates like Thomas are not allowed to be released on certain days, including Fridays, and must be released into the custody of their parole agents.
The report also found that Thomas's parole officer failed to properly file documents related to his release that could have notified prison officials of Thomas's high-control status. Despite the official procedures that should have prevented Thomas from reentering the community unsupervised, he was reportedly given $132 and deposited at a bus station. From there, he traveled to San Francisco. The next day at approximately 4 p.m., Thomas attacked Loren, a total stranger.
"I think everybody needs to pay more attention to what's going on in our prisons. I think we all need to think more about what happens there and whether the right things are happening there," Tim says.
A judge has declared Thomas incompetent to stand trial. He is currently being held at Atascadero State Hospital. On Nov. 9, the Schallers filed a claim seeking damages from the California Department of Corrections. The state has 45 days to respond. If the claim is rejected or ignored, the Schallers plan to file a lawsuit against the department.
Returning to Life Before
In the meantime, the Schallers are trying to live life like normal people again.
"After the surgery in St. Louis, we could take somewhat of a breather and say, 'What was our life like before this happened?'" Linda says.
For her part, Loren remains thoughtful about the attack, but appears surprisingly unfazed. She's learned to type again and even mastered the difficulty of the control-alt-delete command despite her injury. She knits. She carts the same backpack--now strapped to a small luggage trolley--that she wore on the day of the attack to and from school, where she enjoys chemistry, drawing, and costume design. She jokes about getting a bionic arm if hers doesn't heal properly. She's even made it to the Noe Valley Farmers' Market a time or two to paint kids' faces. But perhaps the most fun Loren has had involves coming up with new responses when strangers inquire about her injuries.
"I tell the freshman kids [at school] that I was in a knife fight," she says with a satisfied smile.