Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

Tru Pressly, personal trainer at Eco Fitness club, was involved in a boating accident on July 31, 2010, in which a boat propeller severed her hamstring and femur. But in less than a year she was able to participate in the Cooper River Bridge Run.

Like so many locals, Daniel Island resident Tru Pressly loves spending an afternoon on the boat, but on the morning of July 31, 2010, she didn't want to go.

"Normally, I wouldn't have hesitated, but that wasn't my first choice that day," said Pressly, 35, a mother of two young boys, a part-time personal trainer, and a runner. "I really just wanted to go to the beach that day."

After lunch, she and a friend met a group of 15 people, most of whom Pressly didn't know, at the Charleston Maritime Center, and the group departed on 28-foot boat for a seemingly typical summer Saturday on the water. Many drank alcohol, but Pressly insists "nobody was out of control."

On the way back, the boat stopped near Shem Creek for what Pressly assumed was a potty break, but the next few minutes would alter the course of her year and almost kill her.

'I'm back here!'

Being at the back of the boat, she jumped into the water from there. Rap music was blaring. People started getting back in the boat and one person pulled the ladder in. She was holding onto a bar at the back of the boat, in the process of pulling herself in, when she heard the boat motor start.

"I remember looking at Kelly (Vincent) and screaming, 'I'm back here! I'm back here!' But the music was so loud that (the driver and many others) couldn't hear me. He put the boat in reverse for some reason. The propeller hit my hip and spun and cut the back of my leg."

The blades, more specifically, slashed through her left hamstring, femur and traced her femoral artery.

Vincent and Bridget Bacon yelled for the boat operator to turn off the motor and Julius Williams, a friend of Pressly and fellow personal trainer, rushed to the back and pulled Pressly into the boat.

Pressly's bad luck was followed by good luck. Three nurses -- Vincent, Mary Piplas and Courtney Barfield -- were on board. To ease the bleeding, Williams tied a tourniquet with a boat rope on Pressly's leg and Vincent pressed her body weight against it. Bacon called 911 and the boat went to the nearest dock in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant.

The last thing Pressly remembers is the "sense of being on the dock" and then waking up in the intensive care unit at the Medical University of South Carolina.

7 surgeries in 2 weeks

Pressly was so swollen from the trauma and fluids that when she woke up in the ICU, she could barely see. Some likened it to having the face of a person weighing 300 to 400 pounds. Pressly is an avid marathon runner and fitness buff. Though Pressly can't remember, doctors and friends have told her that the only question she asked during the trauma was "Will I get to run again?"

William McKibbin, an orthopedic surgeon at MUSC, was on duty the day Pressly arrived, and his main concern was the damage to her left femur and how to repair it.

"I knew she'd survive this," said McKibbin. "She was obviously very fit."

During the course of the next two weeks, doctors performed seven surgeries -- including placing four screws and a wire to reconnect bone and joint tissue and cutting out one-third of her hamstring -- in an attempt to save her leg.

"Their main concern was bacteria," said Pressly. "There was so much bacteria in the water. Most of the surgeries were simply cleaning out my leg -- pressure washing the inside to get everything out."

Good friend Cristin Davis, who declined to go on the boat that day, recalls the uncertainty in days following the accident. "We didn't know what would happen. We were really scared about the infections and we were worried about her losing her leg."

Though staff originally estimated that she would be in the hospital for four months, Pressly went home on Aug. 14 -- less than a month after the accident. All of it was a testament to her fitness level.

Fitness & friends

Over the next six months, friends rallied to Pressly's aid.

While at the hospital, when Pressly complained that her hair smelled like bacon, friends washed it while she was still bedridden. Friends from ECO Fitness club, where Pressly works and trains, were particularly concerned. The whole gym signed a homemade, oversized card. Fellow personal trainer Jermaine Lewis brought two massive teddy bears.

Once at home, the visits and care continued. Three friends, Davis, Stephanie Collins and Melody Tuttle, took turns staying with her during months of at-home recovery. Erin Kerr at ECO's Kids Town helped arrange care of her two sons, Hudson, 5, and Charlie, 4.

Davis said their friendship -- first formed because their sons are best friends and both named Hudson -- trumped her squeamishness about performing nurse-like duties.

"I did things and saw things that I thought I'd never do or see," said Davis. "Normally, I don't do blood."

Pressly started her at-home physical therapy, which initially wore her out, and eventually made it back to the gym in October. Fellow trainer Todd Fox started working on her range of motion exercises. Massage therapist Bob Hamilton gave her 10 free massages, which she thinks helped break up scar tissue.

Slowly but surely, Pressly was getting stronger and bolder -- thanks to discipline and a stubborn will.

"I don't think I would have made it without my friends," said Pressly.

The Bridge Run

Pressly's comeback over the winter was witnessed by many at the gym.

Two weeks before the Cooper River Bridge Run, Pressly and her boyfriend, Lee Camden, had planned to go to the beach, but Pressly opted to go walking on the trails on Daniel Island. She was feeling so good that she decided to start running, slowly, and ended up going for about 13 minutes.

The run wasn't what she was used to. Her left leg stiffened. But it gave her hope to run the Bridge Run on April 2.

"I thought, 'If I can walk-run five miles, I can do the Bridge,'" recalled Pressly, before trying just that on a treadmill.

She managed to do it, though she felt it for two days, and decided to run the first mile of the Bridge and walk the rest. She ended up running the whole way, though 30 minutes slower than usual, and finished in 1:13:53.

Recovery continues

While she hopes one day to run half marathons again, her journey to recovery is not over.

The femur is still considered fractured. If a bone stimulator, which promotes calcification, does not work, she will likely face a bone graft. In the meantime, the four pins remain. Because of the injury, doctors warn that she can expect to have arthritis develop in her hip and/or knee down the road, especially if she continues to be extremely active.

The mental trauma isn't over either. Despite her strong facade, she continues to have regular nightmares about the accident.

"I hate going to sleep at night, still," said Pressly. "I can flat see my leg in that propeller. I have that dream a lot. And then (dreaming of) waking up in ICU and having that feeling of not being able to breathe and not being able to see well."

The trauma is financial as well. The accident has racked up medical bills totaling more than $300,000, which she is currently in a lawsuit over. She added, "Every day I'm scared to go to the mail box and get another bill."

Boating safety

Pressly also hasn't ventured back out on a boat again, and expects it may be a while before she does.

With approach of the Memorial Day weekend and the summer boating season, law enforcement officers have been reiterating the importance of safety.

1st Sgt. Angus MacBride of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources vividly recalls Pressly's incident and was pleased to hear about her recovery. But, he added, many boating accidents end up with far more tragic consequences.

"It was not one of the worst," said MacBride, noting that 800,000 boats are registered in South Carolina. "When it comes to boating, people need to understand they can go from having the best time of their life to death in a blink of an eye."

Pressly knows this too well. She urges people to take precautions.

"Clearly, it was an accident, but you have to be super cognizant of what's going on -- especially the person driving the boat. You need to take head counts and make sure everyone knows what's going on, especially when you're turning the boat on and off."