Medical team repairing leg of Weeki Wachee mermaid

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic The Little Mermaid, it is the heroine’s fascination with the human world that prompts her to dream of trading her tail for human legs.

Samantha Maywell, 24, a “mermaid” at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, dreams of getting her aquatic tail back.

On Aug. 22, the dark-haired, sparkling blue-eyed, two-year veteran of the underwater world of Weeki Wachee Springs nearly lost her left leg in a boating accident off a Hernando Beach canal.

According to Maywell, she and a group of friends were in a pontoon boat not far from shore when waves became choppy due to an upcoming storm. “We weren’t moving,” Maywell said, “although the boat was on.”

Another watercraft drifted to the side of the pontoon boat, and the vessels bobbed side by side. As Maywell tried to push them apart, a wave knocked her off balance, sending her off the bow and directly into the craft’s propeller.

The accident nearly severed her left leg, breaking bones and leaving muscle and tendon hanging. One of the passengers on the other boat immediately tied a lifesaving tourniquet to Maywell’s leg, and she was rushed to Bayonet Point Hospital.

“I remember everything up until after they cut off my bathing suit,” Maywell said. When she awakened in the recovery room, her leg was reattached.

Maywell doesn’t recall ever thinking she might lose the leg, but learned later how close she had come to having it amputated.

Two weeks in the hospital and two surgeries later, Maywell returned home in a wheelchair. “I was home for four days before going back to receive a third surgery,” she said.

Her physical therapy began in the hospital, where Maywell was encouraged to move around to keep her blood circulating in her leg and to prepare her eventually to regain the strength to walk. She progressed to a walker and now uses crutches to get around.

Physical therapy inside Oak Hill Hospital’s Rehabilitation Center began on Sept. 23 under the direction of Paul Ernandes, director of physical therapy. Using deep pressure, Ernandes and physical therapist Valerie Rabideau work to remove adhesions and scar tissue from the surgical area. They also use deep pressure to ensure adequate circulation is restored to the leg and into the foot.

At times the pain becomes evident when either Ernandes or Rabideau presses hard, causing Maywell to flinch slightly in pain. Yet her face remains poised and she engages in comfortable conversation with her therapists.

Maywell is a tenacious fighter. Her medical team is inspired by her progress. “She is doing better than expected considering the amount of trauma she suffered,” said Ernandes.

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Maywell visits Oak Hill three times a week for one-hour sessions. She said she looks forward to the therapy, believing it eventually will lead to her returning to her job as a mermaid at the tourist attraction.

She will continue undergoing massaging and prodding, pulling and sculpting the scar tissue out of her surgical area to allow the leg to resume functioning normally. And it will take months of weight-bearing and exercises to strengthen her muscles so she can walk comfortably and swim with full range of motion while wearing her tail.

According to Ernandes, Maywell’s leg must be at 100 percent range of motion to return to her position. “She is at about 45 percent,” Ernandes said, which he called tremendous progress.

She has become an inspiration at the clinic, where her therapists are quick to admire Maywell’s strength.

Maywell and the therapists joke around, exchange stories and do everything possible to make sure their efforts are successful.

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While the journey since the accident has been slow and steady, Maywell’s experience hasn’t tarnished her optimism and self-confidence.

The most difficult part has been accepting that her leg now has limitations it never did before. “It won’t bend the way it used to,” she said. But the most important part, without question, is the realization that she could have and almost did lose her leg.

“The best part is that I still have my leg,” she said.

Maywell began weight-bearing therapy Friday where she walked for the first time without crutches.

Her body responded with apprehension at first, said Rabideau, which is a natural defense behavior. “She hasn’t walked in three months,” she said.

Maywell was pleased with her progress and proceeded to receive additional deep pressure to help her knee bend to the 90 degrees needed to return to full function. She was at about 60 degrees.

Once the doctor gives her the OK, Maywell will begin working in water with the goal of a return to performing in the cool Weeki Wachee Springs.

The experience has been life-changing. But she surprised her medical team and many in the community by keeping her leg. Now she fights to ensure she also keeps her mermaid tail.

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