After a year of hard work, Gabriela Curiel headed to Lake Berryessa in Napa County, California, for a boating excursion hosted by her company, a San Francisco nonprofit.
It was a bright, sunny day, and she was enjoying her time on the boat with colleagues. She was 4 months pregnant at the time so decided not to swim until a co-worker convinced her to hop off the back of the boat and into the water.
The day quickly turned into one of the hardest of Curiel’s life. While she was in the water, the boat propeller began to drag her toward it. She suddenly felt something hit her legs. The propeller had severely lacerated the upper and lower parts of each thigh.
“My co-workers pulled me back onto the boat, and I remember looking down at my legs and the only thing I could see was blood,” Curiel said.
Luckily, an emergency boat happened to be nearby. She was rushed to shore and a California Highway Patrol helicopter then airlifted her to Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Hospital Trauma Center.
The emergency room trauma team in Vacaville acted immediately, administering a massive blood transfusion.
“If they hadn’t acted so quickly, my life may not have been saved,” Curiel said.
Everything happened so fast, she said. Curiel remembers saying to the nurses, “I’m pregnant, please help my baby.”
She also remembers that “a nurse kindly put her hands on both sides of my face and just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry. You are going to be OK.”’
Curiel was then rushed to the operating room.
The initial surgery required 2 Kaiser Permanente vascular surgeons and a trauma surgeon.
“That first surgery went for 10 hours,” said Michael Levine, MD, vascular surgeon. “We had the whole trauma team working. At first, we weren’t sure if we could save her legs.”
Three bypasses were done in that initial surgery, in which major veins and arteries were repaired and reconnected. A few days later Curiel was taken in for another 10-hour surgery. Over the course of 3 weeks, Curiel had 7 additional surgeries to close her wounds and repair muscles using muscle flaps, which successfully saved both her legs.
Initially, Curiel stayed at the Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Medical Center for a month. Her care team included multiple medical and surgical specialists, trauma nurses, wound care nurses, respiratory therapists, social workers, and a nutritionist.
Travis Gerlach, MD, medical director of the Vacaville Trauma Center, said, “Gabby is a beautiful example of the amazing things that can be achieved when the trauma team and the rest of the clinical care team’s treatment is orchestrated effectively.”
For Curiel, the most important thing was the safety of her baby who, through it all, was perfectly healthy. Although doctors were unsure if Curiel would be able to walk, they knew Curiel was a fighter.
After her surgery, Curiel had a long road ahead of her. She was discharged to Kaiser Permanente’s home health team after a month, which provided physical therapy and around-the-clock care for 3 months.
“My team was amazing. They took care of everything,” she said. “The nurses would tell me they were praying for me and that I was their miracle patient.”
Her care team had praise for Curiel as well.
“So much of her recovery was due to her determination,” said Dr. Levine. “She always exceeded our expectations. And she never complained about anything. It was unbelievable how she dealt with everything.”
After months of resilience and hard work, Curiel was able to walk normally again. Her baby girl, Leah, was born in November.
“I am so grateful for my life now,” Curiel said. “Everything I do, I try to feel the moment and enjoy it to the maximum. You never know what will happen next.”
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