A horrific accident shattered her body and disfigured her face, but surgeons did more than re-sculpt her face -- they re-grew nerves and brought back feeling. Doctors say the technique can be used in all kinds of trauma cases to repair nerves throughout the body.
"They told me when I came in, they thought I only had a 1 percent chance of survival,” Erin McCormick told Ivanhoe.
One year ago, on a lake outing with friends, McCormick was run over by a boat. The propeller shredded her arm, upper body and half of her face.
"Think about cutting yourself with a knife a thousand times a minute, which is what a propeller is doing,” Pablo Prichard, M.D., medical director for plastic surgery at John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., told Ivanhoe.
Dr. Prichard used screws and plates to help reconstruct McCormick’s face.
"A lot of what we did was more tedious work, putting little tiny fragments of bone back together, putting little snippets of muscles back together, as well as all the nerves that were cut,” Dr. Prichard explained.
That was only half the battle. Doctors also needed to prevent paralysis and restore feeling to McCormick’s face.
"There are so many different complex natures in the face that gives it much more complexity than, say, an elbow joint,” Dr. Prichard said.
Doctors used a new protective collagen shell. They place it around severed nerve fragments in the face. It protects the fragments from scarring, which can get in the way of nerves growing back together.
"The body is trying to scar internally from the outside and constrict on the nerve that's being repaired,” Dr. Prichard explained. “This basically is protecting that nerve from the body itself, so it gives it the best chance possible to have a functional recovery."
One year after the accident, McCormick can feel every smile and frown, and loves what she sees in the mirror.
"Most people don't even believe me when I tell them what happened,” she said. “They're like, ‘Oh, you look great!’ I kind of agree with them."
McCormick has had 19 surgeries, and she still has more ahead to fully repair her arm and other physical damage from the accident. Her experience has inspired her to pursue a career in nursing.