Editor’s note: This article contains some graphic material.
Penn State student Ryan Mullins learned a lot about bad timing a few months ago.
After a strong current forced him to collide with a boat propeller in Key West, Fla., he was left with deep lacerations in his left leg. A Coast Guard volunteer who boated to the accident scene said that propeller accidents, many times, are fatal. Mullins was lucky to be alive.
Not only did Mullins (graduate-geography) survive the fiasco, now, months later, he is almost fully recovered. A nerve in his left leg is still healing, but otherwise, Mullins said he’s doing just fine.
He’s the first person to survive a 2012 propeller injury and the first person in five years to walk away after sustaining such an injury, a Coast Guard volunteer told him.
“It’s a statistic I’d rather not be, but I'm glad I am,” Mullins said.
After earning his undergraduate degree at Penn State in computer science, Mullins spent this past summer in Key West at one of Penn State’s Applied Research Labs . While there, some friends taught him how to spearfish -–– a free diving method of fishing that Mullins considers a “better version of snorkeling.”
Spearfishermen wear only a snorkel and mask and dive about 15 to 20 feet into the ocean, using a spear gun (a metal spear attached to a three foot rod) to catch sea creatures, like hogfish.
It was only Mullins’ third time spearfishing when the accident happened in early June. He remembers the day as windy and the current rough. While out in the water, Mullins felt himself wading dangerously close to the boat’s motor --–– a stainless steal propeller running at 250 horsepower –– and just as he realized his proximity, a wave pushed him directly toward the propeller.
The blades sliced the back of his left leg in five different places, leaving some of the gashes almost an inch deep. There was significant hamstring and nerve damage. His calf muscle was split and detached. All of the injuries were on the back of his leg, which was probably a blessing, Mullins said.
“It honestly was not really painful at all at first,” Mullins said. “But then I felt the laceration on my thigh…I literally put my own finger inside my leg.”
One of Mullins’ coworkers, Ryan Schaaf, Class of 2010, helped guide Mullins back to the boat. Schaaf said that between his pulling and Mullins’ kicking, they managed to get away from the propeller quick enough to avoid any more injuries. Though Schaaf had zero medical experience, he had to literally push Mullins’ calf muscle back into his leg as they were climbing back to safety.
Mullins was still able to hoist himself on the boat — he credits his active lifestyle and adrenaline to having the strength to do that — and Schaaf said Mullins took charge of the situation until the Coast Guard arrived to help out. The group used a beach towel to clot the wounds.
“[Mullins] is a really relaxed, very easy-going guy,” Schaaf said. “He was the most calm person on that boat. He was telling everyone that their first aid was wrong,” he laughed. “And he totally had the situation under control. Ryan was our medic.”
The rescue scene was filmed and aired on The Weather Channel’s “Coast Guard Florida.” To watch the clip of Mullins’ rescue, go to The Weather Channel’s website and view the “Coast Guard Florida: Injured Swimmer”clip.
Everything was a whirlwind after the Coast Guard arrived at the boat. Mullins said he got a “really, really fun ride into the dock,” remaining conscious the entire time. He was rushed to the hospital, where medics splashed sterile water on his open wounds — which “hurt a lot,” Mullins said –– and the medics then performed emergency surgery. About 140 stitches and 50 internal staples later, Mullins was out of the hospital at about 10 p.m. that same day. He waited until he was out of the medical center that night to call his family.
He didn’t want them to worry, he said.
“He started to tell me about this accident, and I’m just laughing,” Mullins’ mother, Denise Mullins, said. “It wasn’t registering. Then I realized he wasn’t joking, and I was just in shock and awe. Once the pieces of the puzzle were put together, that’s when it really hit home.”
But the accident didn’t scare Mullins into quitting spearfishing. A relentless and determined athlete, who also dedicates time to sports like rock climbing and backpacking, he was back in the water in no time –– barely one month after the accident, Mullins said.
“My mother has different sentiments about that,” Mullins said, laughing. “But I don’t have any anxiety toward the situation at all. You have to understand that it was really bad luck and poor timing.”
Though it was a freak accident, neither Denise nor Schaaf is surprised that Mullins endured the situation and bounced back quickly. Denise credits every part of his survival –– from remaining calm to hoisting himself on the boat to acting as his own “medic” –– to his martial arts, Eagle Scout and rock climbing training.
“He’s a very focused person,” Denise said. “When he sets his mind to something, he does it. Apparently, that day, it was surviving.”