A 6-year-old Henrico girl is lucky to be alive after she survived a bad car crash. She is recovering from several surgeries.
Her mother is making a plea to every parent out there so they don't make the same mistake she did.
"Do you want the little paintbrush?" Shelly Martin asks her daughter Samantha. The two are painting together and mom is explaining how to mix colors to her daughter, because teaching, is just what mothers do.
"This looks like a big ol' angel, you see the wings?" Shelly observes.
But this art lesson isn't happening at home. They’re in the pediatric acute care unit at VCU Medical Center. Mom and her daughter have made this their home for three weeks.
Back on Sept. 17, 6-year-old Samantha was staying cool at Field Days of the Past in Goochland. Samantha was riding back from the fair with her dad when they crashed into a tree on Ashland Road in Hanover County. A Hanover deputy called mom.
"He called, told me that she was already here in surgery, it's a phone call you do not want," Shelly remembers. "It's awful, I mean it's torture. You know what I mean? Your mind kind of thinks of all sorts of things. They told me she had facial...um a head injury and stomach lacerations and that she was still in surgery and that's all they would tell me for a couple of hours."
Dr. Charles Bagwell lead the team of surgeons who performed several operations to save Samantha.
Dr. Bagwell explained the graphic details:
"Where you could see the stripe of the seat belt in an enormous bruise across her abdomen, as well as the fact that the edge, the far edge of the belt, had actually cut through her abdominal wall and she had protruding intestines from that. She was just about cut in two. Much of which, quite frankly, couldn't be repaired. The injury was too severe."
Surgeons used medical techniques developed at VCU and a binder around her belly - holding her together, not unlike the job of this mother, who has slept by Samantha's side in the hospital every single night.
Because that's what mothers do.
"Because stuff happens so quickly, so quickly," said Shelly. "And you'll just be, I mean, there's always going to be that guilt about, ya know, we should've done better. This was completely avoidable."
Samantha should have been in a booster seat, but she wasn't. Her parents thought she had outgrown it. They made another mistake so many parents have seen: Samantha put the shoulder belt behind her, which increased the force of the lap belt on her stomach.
Lucky for Samantha, "there were a lot of people that stopped at the accident, um, and our family grew a lot that day," Shelly says.
17-year-old Laura Kenny is one of the first who stopped - one of those new family members.
"I immediately yanked the door open, because I could see blood everywhere, I didn't know where the blood was coming from, didn't know the extent of her injuries," said Kenny. "She was leaned over, unconscious when I found her and she was starting to wake up when I pulled her from the vehicle and she never cried once."
To get to Samantha, Laura pulled her truck into a ditch off Ashland Road. When she tried to get out, the ditch ripped up the underside of her truck. She still drives it to her two jobs each day, but she says it's pretty messed up.
Shelly couldn’t believe this complete stranger’s instincts.
"She wasn’t trying to, you know, take care of her own car or her own self. She just took care of mine. So, I want to help her out," said Shelly.
"Just broke my heart to see a kid like that and her mom, I know the mom was going through so much because she can't help," Kenny said.
Then on Oct. 6, nearly three weeks after the crash, mom and daughter got to go home. Mom is helping Samantha do just about everything while the binder around her belly holds her together until she heals.
"Just sitting here, she's not like in pain, so she thinks she can get up and run and play and she's perfectly fine. The problem with that is that if she does move, there's just that little bit of skin holding her all together," said Shelly.
Any mother knows what keeping a 6-year-old still is like.
"Go slow!" mom reminds her daughter while they’re playing a game in their home, a home that now adorns the paintings the two worked on back in the hospital. They look on to that "big ol’ angel" painting, and mom thinks back to all the nights spent in that hospital room together. They have a ways to go, but Shelly is helping Samantha each step of the way, because that's what mothers do.
After all of this, Shelly is urging all parents to understand how to use child safety seats, seat belts, and when it’s okay to move a child out of their safety seat.
"A lot of people seem to think that when the children don't fit so easily in the booster, that it's okay to take them out of the booster. That's not the case," said Shelly.
"Samantha also moved the shoulder belt behind her. So now the lap belt was carrying twice the force and, because she's not tall enough without a booster, the lap belt went across her stomach instead of her hips. Doctors call the injury this caused 'the seat belt syndrome.'"
We met with Corri Miller-Hobbs, a nurse and expert on child safety seats. She says one of the most common mistakes parents make is trying to move kids from a safety seat with a harness to a booster seat before they are ready to.
Keep them in the harness as long as possible, read the manual to make sure you're using it correctly.
"You also want the harness retainer clip to be at the armpit level of the child," said Miller-Hobbs. "If it's too low in a crash, the straps can come open and the child can come out of the top."
How much they weigh, how tall they are, and how old they are determine what size child seat they need. Seats come with stickers on them that tell you what type of seat it is and who it's for. It's possible your child will appear too big for the harness as they are starting to outgrow it - check the manual before switching to a booster.
When you do switch, Miller-Hobbs says to use all of the features the seat offers.
"Safety seats have these nice guides that allow you to place the shoulder belt into the guide in order for the safety belt to stay in during a crash," said Miller-Hobbs. "That's going to help keep the child upright, keep them secured back in the seat, allow the lap belt to be over the hard hip bones, not on the soft, squishy stomach."
If you have questions about safety seats and or anything related to child safety, there's a great resource online. Visit safekids.org - there are several chapters across Virginia with experts who you can talk with.
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