After Preteen Survives Severe Boat Strike, Mom Warns Families to Stay Safe at Lakes

June 29, 2017 7:00 AM

It took more than three weeks in the hospital and multiple surgeries, but one 12-year-old recovered from a frightening accident. What others should know.

Twelve-year-old Cora Thomas spent a June 2017 afternoon like so many other Michiganders in her neighborhood: swimming in Fenton’s Lake Ponemah.

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She was talking to her friend when, suddenly, she looked up to see a ski boat heading toward her.

The then incoming seventh-grader, who was floating on a pink inflatable about 100 feet from shore, tried to yell and move out of the way — but it was too late.

As the boat turned around, reportedly to pick up a wake surfer, the driver apparently didn’t see the girls in the water. The propeller caught Cora’s right leg, striking it in five places and leading to a severed artery and tendons and a broken tibia, fibula and toe.

The boaters, still apparently unaware, continued on. Pulling Cora on the raft, her friend swam her to shore and then rushed to Cora’s house to tell her mom what had happened.

Cora was taken by ambulance to Hurley Medical Center in Flint. She was then transferred to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where she had a 12-hour surgery to clean her wounds and assess her injuries.

In all, Cora was hospitalized for more than three weeks, undergoing multiple surgeries to repair blood vessels and nerves, prevent infection and make her leg as functional as before as possible.

“When the doctors first saw her, they weren’t sure if they would be able to fix her leg, or how well she’d be able to use it again,” her mother, Michelle Thomas, pictured above with Cora, says. “And had it been infected, there was also a possibility she could have lost her leg completely. It could have been so much worse, and we are so thankful it wasn’t.”

Boating dangers

As families head to the beach this summer, the Thomases and doctors at C.S. Mott remind everyone to take extra caution on crowded waters.

SEE ALSO: 8 Boat Safety Tips That Can Save Lives

Among top tips: appropriate speeds, strong communication, alert drivers, child supervision, use of necessary safety devices and boating safety certification.

Nationally, boating incidents accounted for nearly 2,903 injuries and 701 deaths in 2016, according to the annual recreational boating statistics report from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Drowning caused the majority of deaths. Incidents reported include lacerations and broken bones as well as a smaller number of amputations, internal organ injuries and spinal cord injuries. Nearly 21 percent of total injuries involved people 19 and under.

Cora Thomas recovering in the hospital.

Looking ahead

Cora’s case required multiple care teams from pediatric orthopaedics, plastic surgery and vascular surgery. The teams worked together to cleanse her wounds repeatedly to reduce infection risk. Surgeons then repaired the sliced artery and nerves to ensure they would heal. A temporary fixation device with metal pins and rods was also placed on her leg to hold bones together, later replaced with a more permanent nail down the middle of her tibia.

Numerous further operations involved removing tissue that was so damaged that it would not heal. In a couple of weeks, she will need skin grafts to replace the damaged skin on her leg.

Doctors say Cora may need more surgeries down the road to help with any injured muscles, and physical therapy will be an important part of her recovery after her bones heal. Mott orthopaedic and plastic surgery teams will continue to follow her case to make sure her skin and bones heal well and to help improve long-term function of her leg.  

Her family hopes Cora will recover in time to start at Lake Fenton Middle School, without crutches at least.

“She was initially just in shock but is finally starting to talk about it. She remembers everything and it was frightening,” Michelle says. “She’s getting stronger by the day, but we have a long road of recovery ahead. I just hope people pay attention to safety rules when they’re out on the water so that something like this — or worse — doesn’t happen to any other family.”