It was a perfect, sunny Memorial Day weekend on a private lake near New Florence, Missouri, when Ashton Yates, 11, had his world turned upside down. Ashton was enjoying a pontoon boat ride with his uncle, brothers and parents when he fell from the front of the boat and was run over. The boat propeller caused horrific injury.
“It all happened so quickly,” says Blair Bishop, Ashton’s mother. “When Ashton popped up, he was screaming and making a sound you never want to hear from your child. We got him into the boat but we didn’t know what limb was injured, and what was attached and what wasn’t. He was hurt everywhere. I felt pure terror.”
As the family sped toward the dock on the private lake, people came rushing to help, including two nurses who cared for Ashton until the ambulance arrived. Paramedics quickly determined Ashton needed to be airlifted from the remote area to St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Ashton’s father rode along in the helicopter while a kind stranger drove Blair by car for the hour-and-a-half ride to the hospital.
Soon after the trauma team at St. Louis Children’s stabilized Asthon, he had his first of eight surgeries over 17 days. His injuries were numerous. His left finger and wrist were broken, along with the bones in his lower right leg. The muscles and tendons in his legs had been sliced by the boat propeller. But his most critical injury was a severed nerve below the knee in his right leg. The nerve is responsible for foot and ankle movement and sensation.
“Once he was stable at the hospital, there was still so much uncertainty because his infection risk was high and we didn’t know if he would lose his legs,” Blair says. “Early on, Ashton asked the heart-wrenching question if he would ever play baseball or walk again. That was the only time he really acted sad or scared. He was a fighter.”
Mark Miller, MD, a Washington University orthopedic surgeon at St. Louis Children’s, performed Ashton’s initial surgeries to address the broken bones and some of the other injuries.
Fixing the severed nerve was the next big hurdle. Christopher Dy, MD, a Washington University orthopedic nerve surgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, considered the surgical options carefully and consulted with colleagues to determine the best approach.
To treat Ashton’s peroneal nerve segmental injury, Dr. Dy performed nerve autograft and allograft surgery to restore dorsiflexion, eversion and sensation.
“Dr. Dy told us it could take six months to a year before we even see anything flicker as the nerve regenerates,” Blair says. “Because success rates for nerve regeneration are higher in kids, age was on Ashton’s side. We just put Ashton in Dr. Dy’s hands. But the ‘wait to see’ was so hard.”
After 17 days, Ashton finally went home in a wheelchair in June 2017. “When we left the hospital, we didn’t know if Ashton would ever walk again,” Blair says.
Once home, Ashton immediately began a rigorous physical therapy program at the St. Louis Children’s Specialty Care Center.
Ashton started seventh grade just two months after his accident and by the end of August he was making the transition from his wheelchair to a walker. “Ashton had a lot of pain but his attitude was always happy and positive,” Blair says. “He was determined and had so many doctors, nurses and others pulling for him.”
In June 2018, one year after the boating accident, Ashton saw Dr. Dy again. “Dr. Dy was blown away by Ashton’s progress,” Blair says. “Ashton had made amazing strides from even three months prior when Dr. Dy saw that the nerves had grown quickly. Since June, Ashton has made even more progress. He walks on his own and you can barely see his foot drop because he picks it up so well. He is running, riding his bike, and will probably play baseball next year. He has even grown 3 or 4 inches in height since last year.”
“Ashton’s case was challenging because the two main nerves were cut in several places, which means a longer distance that the nerves need to regenerate,” Dr. Dy says. “He has a remarkable outcome from an injury that would be debilitating for many others. He is a magnetic, driven kid with a fantastic family, which has certainly helped him make such an amazing recovery.”
To celebrate Ashton’s recovery, Blair says she is planning a family vacation to the beach next summer. But first, she is fulfilling a promise made to Ashton during his darkest time. “He asked us if he could go to the Boston Marathon when he got better and we promised him he could. Now he is taking us up on that so we will be going to Boston next year, too!”
Blair continues: “I never thought we would be where we are today. We’re very thankful. Ashton has been through so much and is an extraordinary kid. I’m so proud to be his mom.”