A spry 70-year-old, Jane Prendergast has made it a mission to take care of her health.
She hikes, lifts weights and goes to yoga class.
But there was nothing she could do to prevent a health scare that could have killed her one Sunday afternoon on the exclusive Ocean Forest golf course on Sea Island. She was shot in the abdomen as she was lining up a putt on the fifth green.
Prendergast and her husband, Joe, who are residents of the picturesque island community in Southeast Georgia, heard gunshots before she was struck.
“We actually yelled to stop shooting,” Prendergast recalls.
But they didn’t know just how much danger they were in as the shooter attempted to kill some pesky squirrels. He was using a .22-caliber rifle, and his aim wasn’t very good. A bullet pierced right through the petite Prendergast, knocking her to the ground.
Luckily, Prendergast was conscious and well aware of what was going on. She yelled that she had been shot, and both her husband and the shooter came running to her aid. The shooter called 911, and soon an ambulance was on the green to take her to a helicopter landing area. There was stormy weather to the north, making it unsafe to go to a trauma center she was familiar with in Savannah. Her best hope would be to the south: she would be flown to a hospital she knew little about, UF Health Jacksonville.
Even as she lay bleeding, the resolute Prendergast was in charge of her situation. She told her husband Joe to go home first and board their dogs, two black labs, before meeting her at the hospital. During her flight, she told the TraumaOne crew her pain was a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. But she felt alert, and she’s grateful for that.
In the hospital’s Level I trauma center, Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia’s only facility equipped to deal with such a severe injury, Chief of Acute Care Surgery Andrew Kerwin, MD, was on call.
“I received a text page that said we had a 70-year-old female with a gunshot wound. That’s not the typical patient you expect to have a gunshot wound,” Kerwin said.
Just before Prendergast was put under anesthesia, the doctor told her they would have to cut off her clothing. She joked that he’d better make sure she was unconscious first.
A lot could have gone wrong that evening.
“When people get gunshot wounds in that area, there is a potential for major injuries to the arteries. They could easily bleed to death,” Kerwin said.
Prendergast’s injury coursed through her gallbladder, liver and duodenum, the first section of the small intestine. Kerwin had to remove the gallbladder altogether. A part of her liver also had to be taken out, but he was able to repair the rest.
“Being shot in the small intestine can produce a lot of complex problems. Fortunately, she didn’t have them,” he said.
Prendergast’s surgery lasted about four hours. When it was over, Kerwin delivered the good news that she would be all right; she’d just need some time to recover.
But Prendergast, a driven woman who once worked in international human resources for Coca-Cola, had other ideas. She was determined to get back home and back to normal as quickly as possible.
With the help of physical therapist Dani Thuston, Prendergast was not only on her feet, but was walking the day she had surgery. By day three, she was maneuvering her way up and down stairs. Meanwhile, her accident had made headlines in all the local news outlets. Prendergast emailed one of the articles to her yoga teacher, letting her know she wouldn’t be in class that week.
But she would be home. And two weeks later, she would be back on the golf course. Within a month, she would be back to doing her daily sets of pushups and sit-ups.
“To see that happen was tremendous. She had obviously kept herself in very good shape before this happened. We had expected her to have a much more difficult course after surgery,” Kerwin said.
Prendergast said she is glad she was taken to UF Health Jacksonville.
“I can’t say enough how pleasant and professional the staff was. As experiences go, it was as good as it possibly could have been,” she said.
Though Prendergast is well aware of the seriousness of her situation, she also approaches everything in her life with a sense of humor. So she had to laugh when a friend bought her a lawn ornament: it was a mischievous-looking squirrel holding a pistol.
Prendergast took the ornament to the fifth green on the golf course, right where she was shot, and had her picture taken with it. She emailed it to Kerwin with a note thanking him for helping her get back on the greens.
“That email made my day. She got back to doing what she loves to do, and that’s what our trauma program is all about,” Kerwin said.
Prendergast is a good reminder that trauma can happen to anyone, regardless of age, race or sex, he said.
“There are no boundaries for trauma. It can happen to anybody at any time, and no one expects it until it happens. That’s why it’s so important for communities to have a trauma center, to be a resource for those injured patients.”