Charles Press remembers the words he said to his daughter just before she almost lost her life in a boating accident last year: “Be careful. There are a lot of knuckleheads out there.”
He grins as he recalls the day, Sept. 14, 2013. His daughter Danielle, then 25, waved him off and headed to the boat with her boyfriend, Jeff Crease.
“It was the perfect day,” she says. “My friends, the weather, just everything.”
It was the young couple’s last chance to have a day on the water before taking off to teach English in Taiwan.
But in seconds, Danielle Press’ life changed.
With the boat anchored in the Mashta Flats off Key Biscayne, Press was in and out of the water all day. She decided to jump back in, not wanting to wait for her boyfriend.
She remembers seeing another boat, but not much else. As the boat backed up, she got caught in its propeller.
“All I remember is sitting in a lot of blood,” says Press, who grew up on the water. The propeller cut into the left side of her body, from ankle to chest, and separated her sciatic nerve.
A year later, Press, who underwent the first-of-its-kind nerve-graft surgery using her own Schwann cells, is using her experience to help others — both on the medical side and in the boating community.
Press and her father, who is Key Biscayne’s police chief, are on a mission to toughen boating laws and make it safer.
Chief Press said the numerous recent accidents, including a deadly Fourth of July crash that killed four people and injured several others, “awoke the sleeping dragon.”
“It’s like the wild west out there,” he said.
As president of the Miami-Dade County Association of Police Chiefs, he has worked with the county mayor to form a task force to combat boating under the influence. He also has pushed for tougher county ordinances, including limiting how many boats can tether together in the water.
But he said the key is getting the Florida Legislature to toughen penalties for operating a boat while intoxicated and to require anyone driving a boat to take classes.
Between the beginning of the year and Nov. 30, there were 58 deaths in the state, including eight in Miami-Dade, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 2013, 50 boating-related fatalities were recorded in Florida. In 2012, there were 61 deaths statewide.
Jorge Pino, the spokesman for the wildlife agency, which monitors Florida’s waterways, said the problem is not getting worse — “it’s just getting more attention.”
“The issue is not about passing more laws,” Pino said. “We have enough laws on the books to combat the problem we have. What it boils down to is personal responsibility. If boaters were to choose not to operate a vessel while intoxicated or operate a vessel carelessly or recklessly in an unsafe manner, we would not be in the situation we are in today.”
The Presses agree, but say education might help.
Danielle Press, who graduated from the University of Florida in 2010 with an anthropology degree and spent time traveling the world, said getting harmed while boating was an impossible thought before her injury.
“You never think that it could happen to you,” said Press, now speaks out about her accident and volunteers with the Monica Burguera Foundation. The foundation, which offers boating safety lessons, was established several years ago to remember 20-year-old Burguera, a Florida International University student who was killed in a 2006 Columbus Day weekend crash. Last year, 666 people took the class through the foundation.
“We know our providing this class is making a difference,” said the foundation’s director of operations, Mari Novo. “We can’t bring Monica back, but we are trying hard to prevent other families from having to go through what Monica’s family went through.”
Novo said having Danielle Press share her story puts a face on the problem.
“We don’t want people to wait until there is an accident,” she said.
For Danielle Press, the accident opened her eyes on how quickly life can change.
While her plans to go to Taiwan were derailed, Press said she will get there eventually. But her recovery has not been easy.
Press was rushed to the Ryder Trauma Center, where her dad was waiting. “There was blood everywhere, and she was white as a sheep,” he said.
The rest of the first few hours was a blur. “Herds” of medical staff went in and out, and they kept pumping blood into his daughter.
Press said a doctor asked him to go over to his daughter and talk to her. He remembers her opening her eyes and saying, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“I told her to shut up and tell me you love me,” he said.
The doctor told him things did not look good for Danielle. The propeller had destroyed a swath of her left side. Charles Press said the doctor “put her back together like Frankenstein.”
When she finally came to, she didn’t understand what had happened. So many things went through her mind.
Would she be able to travel to different countries, “roughing it,” hiking and living in the jungle? Would she be able to walk, run and exercise like she once did? Would she even make it out of the hospital?
When doctors proposed performing a treatment that had never done before, she knew she had to go for it. She had no feeling in her leg. She didn’t even know whether she would be able to keep it.
The surgery scared her and scarred her, but she thought it was her best chance.
Allan Levi, a University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital neurosurgeon, said the surgery offered the best chance of saving her leg. There was a several-inch gap in her sciatic nerve, which controls most of the movement and sensation in the leg. Levi, through the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, was working on getting approval to use a patient’s own Schwann cells to treat paralysis.
Schwann cells, according to the Miami Project, are a type of “support” cell in the peripheral nervous system, and are essential for regeneration of injured cells in the system.
“I am very happy with her progress and would like to see even more,” Levi said. He said the science — which has been more than 25 years in the making — is a huge part, but Press’ “unwavering ability to stay positive” has been crucial.
“Her fortitude and tenacity has helped in the recovery process,” he said. Levi said doctors hope this sort of treatment will soon provide the cure for paralysis that they have been working so hard to find.
“It’s promising,” he said.
While Danielle Press has come a long way in just over a year, complete success remains uncertain. Because the nerve grows so slowly, it could take years until she regains any sensation below her knee. She has already undergone eight operations, and there may be more.
But even without being able to feel her foot or wiggle her toes, she manages to keep going. She is back to her exercise routine. She plans to travel to Canada with her boyfriend, and then to Taiwan.
On her wrist, she now has a tattoo of a wave going into a lifeline to remind her of her ordeal.
She fears leaving home, getting into the water, having a panic attack on a boat.
But her father looks at his daughter in awe and says he knows she will be fine.
“If she made it through that,” he said, “I know she can make it through anything.”