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A Destin woman’s journey from near tragedy: 'You've experienced a miracle of God'

Wendy Victora
wvictora@nwfdailynews.com

DESTIN -- A few weeks ago, Lee Ann Dorn got back on the bicycle she hadn’t ridden in a year. Before the accident that nearly killed her a year ago, she was riding 15 to 17 miles a day.

She can’t turn at the waist, faces more surgeries, including one to move an organ, and will never regain her full cognitive function.

RELATED: Friends raise money for Destin woman injured in boating accident

But Lee Ann and her family are nothing but grateful on the one-year anniversary of the accident that, by all accounts, should have killed her. The Destin woman was disemboweled by a propeller when she slipped off the back of a boat on Memorial Day weekend.

She drowned and had to be resuscitated, her lungs collapsed, her organs spilled out and her kidneys failed.

Prepare for the worst, doctors told her family on multiple occasions. She’s in grave condition. She may not recognize you again. She may die.

RELATED: Local woman critically injured in boating accident

“No one told me exactly everything that happened until months later,” said Lee Ann, who has already had seven surgeries and four hospitalizations. “And they told me a little bit at a time so I wasn’t overwhelmed.”

They credit God for her survival, for placing the right family, friends and strangers at the exact right points along her precarious journey to survival. From the surgeon who happened to be vacationing on a nearby beach to her then 23-year-old daughter, Chelsey, who breathed life back into her, God was taking care of them, the Dorns say.

“There were so many people placed in our lives at a significant moment that anything else would have led to a different result,” her husband, Phil, said.

RELATED: Dorn steps down as FWB football coach

***

Lee Ann wrote a letter to the Daily News as the one-year anniversary approached. Excerpts from that letter are included in this story.

I’ve learned a lot this past year. I’ve realized that it is God who has complete power and control in my life. God didn’t help me heal to run back to what’s familiar. God is above my problems and my pain. It’s OK to fall apart and struggle. Healing is complicated, but God is always there for me.

•••

Three of the four members of the Dorn family -- Lee Ann, Phil and their daughter, Chelsey -- went out on a friend’s boat with four other adults on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend last year.

The boat was off shore near the East Pass when they decided to get in the water one last time before heading in for the day.

Several jumped off the front. Chelsey dove off the side. Lee Ann climbed down the ladder in the back of the boat. On her way back up, she slipped and was pulled into the propeller, which no one realized was spinning.

Investigators with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission later determined that it had been in a reverse rotation, according to the investigative report.

The blades sliced open her abdomen and entangled her bathing suit.

No one knows how long she was in the water before they found her. Chelsey spotted her when she swam around the back of the boat to climb in.

“In that moment, I realized my mom was drowning,” Chelsey recalled. “I pulled myself up over the side of the boat. I was in a pure panic, vomiting, having a panic attack.”

Two of the male passengers tried to push Lee Ann into the boat from the water while Phil pulled from the boat.

They dropped her three times, the third time taking Phil over the edge with her. The current was so strong and the water so deep he struggled to get to the surface and back to his wife.

Finally, they got her into the boat, where Chelsey began performing CPR.

“Out of nowhere, it was like God took over,” she said. “I went from throwing up to, ‘This is exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to support her neck, provide rescue breaths.’ ”

She brought Lee Ann back to life as the boat raced to the beach. Lee Ann started screaming, a terrifying scream that didn’t stop until they intubated her in the rescue vehicle, Phil said.

“From where I’m at, I’m behind her, talking to her, trying to be as calming as I can be, trying to get to the beach,” Phil said. “At one brief moment, halfway in, she looked at my daughter right in the eyes and said, ‘What is happening?’”

•••

My family and I have been asked a lot of questions over the year, so to answer the most common ones: I remember climbing down the ladder and when climbing back up, I lost my balance. I then remember getting sucked in with lots of bubbles coming at me. I remember thinking ‘This isn’t good’ and began praying the Hail Mary.”

•••

Other passengers had called 911 and Chelsey called her brother, who was working close by as they headed for shore. Phil held his wife up from behind, while Chelsey held her organs in place.

The boat’s operator drove the boat right onto the beach, where a cancer surgeon and his wife, who were vacationing from Memphis, met the boat and started emergency medical treatment.

“There’s a gentleman who is barking orders to everybody, wearing sunglasses, a floppy hat, a long sleeved Dri-Fit shirt and a swim suit,” Phil said, adding that in his shock and confusion, he couldn’t figure out who the man was.

They later learned he was Dr. Daniel Wakefield and that he’d noticed the boat heading toward shore and surmised there was an emergency.

Lee Ann was loaded onto a lifeguard’s backboard and then onto an ATV, where she was rushed to an ambulance parked in the nearest lot. A medical helicopter took her to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.

Phil and Chelsey had no way to follow, except on foot. When they reached the parking lot, which was blistering hot, they encountered a woman who asked if she could help.

“Give this man some shoes,” Chelsey yelled as she ran by.

The woman took off her own flip flops and handed them to Phil.

“It was such an act of kindness in the middle of hysteria,” he said.

•••

I am definitely not the same physically and mentally, but no doubt, spiritually I am healthier. I am physically getting stronger daily and beginning to return to somewhat normal activity.

•••

Lee Ann’s 19-year-old son, Karl, picked them up and they got permission from the Sheriff’s Office to drive on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 98, which was a parking lot due to Memorial Day traffic.

“My son felt like it was God taking him,” Lee Ann said. “He was driving on the island through the gravel. He didn’t pop a tire and he didn’t wreck.”

They reached the hospital in just 15 minutes. Chelsey was wearing her bathing suit and flip flops. Phil had on a suit and women’s flip flops. Karl had no shirt or shoes.

Dorn, the former head football coach and current athletic director at Fort Walton Beach High School, found Principal John Spolski waiting at the hospital when they arrived.

“He gave my son the shirt that he was wearing and he gave him his shoes,” Phil said.

Phil, Chelsey and Karl were then ushered into a small private room near the emergency room. It would be the first of many times they were warned about the gravity of Lee Ann’s medical condition.

“The emergency room nurse, she said, ‘I need to tell you that your wife is in very bad condition and she’s unstable and there’s nothing we can do at the moment,’” Phil recalled.

“We sat in that room, the three of us, we’re all in shock and despair,” he said. “I told both my kids at that time, ‘All we can do is pray and keep our minds in the right place. It’s not going to go to the negative.”

Less than 30 minutes later, the nurse told her family they had stabilized Lee Ann and she was going into emergency surgery. Twice during the surgery, a nurse called and told Phil the same thing: “Prepare for the worst.”

Surgeons put her organs back inside of her that first day and opened her up the next to wash seaweed and other contaminants out.

The third day, an EEG revealed that her brain, damaged by the oxygen deprivation when she drowned, was showing a disturbing pattern of inactivity mixed with bursts of activity.

“She was basically trying to wake herself up,” Phil said. “They tell you the worst, which is, if it continues, her brain is basically trying to (decide) whether it’s going to keep her alive or kill her.”

The family asked for prayer from everyone, nothing else, just prayers.

Chelsey started a journal on caringbridge.org which led to strangers and friends and acquaintances, some of which they hadn’t talked to in decades, adding their prayers to the mix.

In the morning of the fourth day, a second EEG revealed that the erratic brain activity was gone. An MRI confirmed that there was no blood or tissue damage to the brain.

That morning, one of Lee Ann’s doctors pulled her family into the hallway.

“Listen,” he said. “What you guys have experienced isn’t medicine. You’re experienced a miracle of God. This just doesn’t happen in medicine.”

•••

This communication is belated in coming; however, filled with tremendous gratitude and love. We know God worked through so many people during and after the accident. I would never be here, trying to write this heartfelt thank you, without your prayers, unwavering faith and God’s glory.

•••

Lee Ann remembers nothing from seeing the bubbles behind the boat until 12 days later, when she woke up and saw her son in her room.

“It was just a flash,” she said. “I just remember waking up and seeing my son in a chair hanging streamers. When my kids were growing up, I would hang streamers outside of their bedroom so they could have decorations for their birthdays.”

That day, she turned 56. She was back, fully conscious for the first time in weeks.

Although she remained in the hospital for more than a month that first time, Phil and Lee Ann encouraged their children to return as much as possible to their normal lives.

By the end of summer, Phil was her primary caretaker, a challenging task as he juggled high school football season and his other school duties.

Their extended family took turns throughout the fall to care for her while Phil worked.

In December, he made the difficult decision to resign as head football coach although he remains the school’s athletic director.

Karl finished his sophomore year of college at home, like other college students across the country due to the coronavirus. He and Lee Ann took up gardening together.

Chelsey, whose first efforts at CPR would save her mother’s life, committed to nursing school. The fact that she was able to perform life-saving duties under the most critical and stressful of situations was the deciding factor.

“It made me realize how many people I can help,” she said.

And Lee Ann focuses on healing and on being grateful every day for each day that she has been given. She said she has her moments of being upset, of struggling with pain, of longing for a healthier body, but she doesn’t allow them to linger.

“I think the majority of time I have been feeling so blessed,” she said. “Instead of looking at what this accident has done to me, I really try to focus on what this accident has done for me.

“The intention that day was to go out and have some fun, but in a fraction of a second, that can change. It has made (us) so much closer and deeper and more appreciative of everything, every moment we get to spend.”

Lee Ann’s Thank You letter

Throughout last summer and fall we had SO many people supporting us. My family and I were beyond floored at the outpouring of love and help. First, we always give thanks and glory to God. Secondly, this is truly a global thank you and includes my husband, Phil, my daughter, Chelsey, my son, Karl, my friends (from grade school to today), our co-workers, our families’ friends and acquaintances, and complete strangers who reached out and offered up assistance, gifts and prayers.

I would like to mention just a few. I apologize to all I’ve erroneously not acknowledged here. God put so many generous people in our life. Please know that each and every one of you is a genuine blessing and has been put in our life for a reason.

THANK YOU:

My amazing family!

Doctor Daniel Wakefield and his nurse wife Amber, who were on the beach and took medical charge when we landed on the beach.

Lifeguard (firefighter from Australia) Sam Elphick who administered medical assistance and stayed with me in the ambulance to the helicopter

First responders in the ambulance and on the medical helicopter

Everyone on the boat that day who rescued me (Dennis Phillips, Hayden Hubbard, Rebecca and Scott Miller, Dayna Kimberly)

The woman who gave Phil her flip flops on the beach

Every person on the beach that day who prayed

The trauma doctors (Dr. Hawks, Dr. McGraw, Dr. Ho) and their teams

Every nurse and technician at FWB Medical Center while under their care

Every doctor I have received and continue to receive treatment from, including Dr. Chris Pappas and Dr. John Brent

The stranger who sat with my son Karl outside the hospital, talking, late into the night

Pastor Wayne Brown (WB), Pastor Barry Carpenter, Father Chris Beretta and Father Michael Goodyear

John and Bridgette Spolski

Okaloosa County School System Superintendent Marcus Chambers, his administration, Okaloosa schools and every Fort Walton Beach High School staff member and parent

The families of Dawn and Mark Steighner, Danny and Karen Bilger, Brian and Holly McDaniel, Scott and Kelly Phillips and Penny Vinson

Coach Mike Turk and his entire football coaching staff at Huntingdon College

All who participated in the meal train, sent flowers, emails, texts, calls, cards and gifts.

All who provided money and gift cards

All who took care of our lawn and pool

All who lifted up prayers … so many … from everywhere

As we conclude the Week of Blessings and Memorial Day weekend, I ask you to please be extra vigilant. I pray for your safety and protection. I pray for watchfulness and blessings for all on your vessels. Finally, I ask that when you say or post on social media “prayers”, please take that moment and truly pray. I am a testament that prayer works and God performs miracles every day.

My family and I love, appreciate and value every one of you. Thank you from my heart and God Bless each of you!