Shaped by Boat Accident, Nurse Aims to Give Others the ‘Amazing Care’ She Received

Naomi Whiteman survived an unthinkable accident that happened while waterskiing with friends. The care she received at Mayo Clinic saved her life, and also gave it direction.

Naomi Whiteman was enjoying a quintessential Fourth of July in Minnesota, waterskiing on a lake with college friends, when the unthinkable happened. The driver of the boat lost control and ran over her. Naomi was pulled from the water and taken by ambulance to Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont. "I kept saying, 'I can't breathe,'" Naomi, then a nursing student, tells us. "I knew my right lung was collapsing."

That was just one of her life-threatening injuries. A Mayo One helicopter was summoned to transport Naomi to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus for advanced care. Along the way, the flight team placed a breathing tube and gave Naomi fluids and blood products to keep her alive.

In Rochester, a team led by Mayo trauma surgeon Scott Zietlow, M.D., began treating Naomi's many injuries, which included a torn liver, multiple broken bones, and deep cuts from the boat's propeller. After he left the operating room, Dr. Zietlow had a difficult conversation with Naomi's parents. "I told them I couldn't think of a better place for Naomi to be, but the chance was higher that she'd die than that she'd live," he says. Happily, Naomi defied the odds and left the hospital just two weeks later. Dr. Zietlow says that's a testament to her "youth and health" as well as "the system of care that was in place to help her."

When Naomi returned to nursing school in the fall, she had a new perspective and a new plan. "I received such amazing care that I knew I wanted to work at Mayo Clinic after graduation," she says. "I wanted to work at the place that saved my life."

For the past 13 years, she's done just that, caring for patients at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus. Naomi now views the accident not as a tragedy, but as a gift that allowed her "to become the nurse that I am today," she says. "It's made me more sympathetic and more empathetic," she tells us, adding that it would benefit all health care providers to "know what it feels like to be in that hospital bed" and "experience the vulnerability, the dependence you feel."

Naomi says she often shares her own experiences with the patients she cares for. "Before certain procedures, I'll tell patients 'I've been through this. It's terrible, but we'll get through it,'" she says.

For many years, Naomi marked the anniversary of her accident with an email to Dr. Zietlow. "I'd thank him for saving my life," she says. He's not surprised by Naomi's attitude of gratitude. "I think when the odds are not on your side, every day is a gift," Dr. Zietlow says. "It is for all of us, but folks like Naomi probably see it even more clearly." And while Dr. Zietlow says he and his colleagues appreciate the thanks, it's seeing Naomi living her life that means the most to them. "It's profoundly rewarding to see her doing what she wants to do, professionally and personally," he says. "It's why we do what we do in trauma."

You can reward us with your comments below before using the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.