“I asked my mom if I was going to die. She told me I’m strong and I’m brave”

Patient Stories |

05/18/2022

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After a freak boating accident, Caroline Pattillo found the strength to survive and thrive, with help from Riley’s trauma team.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

To hear details of the accident might send shivers up your spine.

A 10-year-old girl was impaled on the rudder of a sailboat when a wave tossed her into the water during her second day at a sailing camp in Bloomington, Indiana.

She knew she was hurt, yet strangely, she felt no pain, she said. Even though she was an excellent swimmer, it was the life jacket she was wearing that kept her afloat for several minutes until another boat crew rescued her.

“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know if I was going to just need a Band-Aid or surgery.”

That little girl is now a high school sophomore who lived to tell about that terrifying day on the lake.

Caroline Pattillo returned to Riley Hospital for Children recently to reunite with Dr. Matt Landman, the trauma surgeon who put her back together after the June 2016 accident.

“You’ve gotten so tall,” Dr. Landman said to Caroline as he hugged both her and her mother, Kerry Thomson. “I remember meeting you in the emergency department that day. You were really brave.”

Brave. Caroline’s mom used that same word when talking her daughter through her emergency after Caroline was airlifted to Riley from Bloomington.

Caroline remembers.

“I asked my mom if I was going to die. She told me I’m strong and I’m brave and I could get through it. She was by my side the whole time.”

Dr. Landman, now medical director of trauma at Riley, treats a lot of patients suffering serious injuries due to accidents, violence and child abuse.

“One of the unique aspects of being a trauma surgeon is you never know what’s going to come in the door,” he said.

In Caroline’s case, he knew she had been impaled in her pelvic area, and it was clear that she would need surgery, but he and the emergency team had some time first to sort through her injuries.

They could see the external trauma, but they couldn’t know for sure the extent of her internal injuries without more testing, so they took some time before heading to the operating room.

“Whenever you have impalement in the pelvis, there are lots of organs, lots of blood vessels you have to worry about,” he said. “Obviously, the major thing you worry about upfront is massive bleeding, but thankfully, we didn’t have that.”

Seeing Caroline today, healed and thriving, is rewarding for her surgeon. But when she tells him she wants to become a pediatric surgeon like him, he positively beams.

“It’s incredible to see someone who came in literally broken, now flourishing and planning a career in surgery,” Dr. Landman said. “I couldn’t be happier with the progress she’s made.”

Not that it was easy. Caroline spent a month at Riley recovering from the physical and emotional wounds she suffered. She remembers the kindness of the team that cared for her, including child life specialist Amanda Banker.

She continued her recovery at home and is now excelling in school, where she plays volleyball, and is a top fundraiser for Riley Dance Marathon.

As difficult as it was to see her little girl suffer, Caroline’s mom was confident that, if she survived, she would come out stronger in the end.

“These are the moments in a child’s life where you can either embrace the learning and pivot the story to be one of resilience, or you can sit with it as a victim and let it be something awful that happened to you,” Thomson said.

“Caroline has been really incredible from the start at choosing the former, choosing the story of strength and resilience. Part of what has been great about telling her story for Riley is she gets to remember her resilience.”

And other young people can learn from her experience, she added.

“I do think it makes an impact for other kids to hear from somebody who appears to have lived a normal, unscathed life – that we all have a story,” Thomson said. “We’ve all been through something, and if you choose to tap your strength and your bravery, you can change it to something that can shape your life in a positive manner.”

For parents who find themselves racing a helicopter to the Riley emergency department, Thomson said you cannot underestimate the power of your presence and of your messaging to your child in that moment.

Dr. Landman helped with that as well, she said.

“The moment I walked into the trauma center, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Hi, I’m Matt. I will be taking care of Caroline.’ He was amazing,” she said, going over test results and walking her through the treatment course they were going to take.

“We understand that there are a lot of surgeons who don’t have a great bedside manner, so we were grateful for you,” she told the doctor.

As for her daughter, Thomson shows a fierce sense of pride and looks forward to seeing how she continues to share her gifts.

“Whether she chooses to be a surgeon or not, I see that she is fed by caring for other humans. She really sees people and knows almost intuitively how to be helpful, so I think whatever she chooses to do in life, she’ll probably find herself in a place where she can continue to help people.”

Receiving our first verification from the American College of Surgeons in 1993, Riley Children's is home to Indiana's longest-standing Level I Pediatric Trauma Center.

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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