The vivid nightmares wash over Molly Moses almost every night now. She remembers the sudden lurch of the boat, the pressure of the propeller against her skin and the MedFlight nurse repeating, “Fight, baby girl, fight.”
“Before July, I had one night when I dreamed of my accident. This year’s been extremely hard because of all the boating deaths,” Moses said. “I am reliving my accident over and over again, while I am awake and asleep. It’s like a tape on repeat, a horror movie.”
Ten years since a boating accident on the Tennessee River resulted in the amputation of her left leg and almost ended her life, the 26-year-old Moses still wrestles with waves of emotion — of pain, questioning and thankfulness.
“Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like 100 years,” said the victim turned advocate for increased water safety. “There’s nothing I can do about the past, but I can do something about the future. I’m ready to fight. I’m ready for my voice to be heard. I want people to practice better water safety before something else bad happens. Too many bad things have happened already.”
In the past seven months, boating accidents on the state’s waterways have claimed the lives of 25 people, making 2019 the deadliest year on Alabama’s rivers, lakes and coasts since 1998, when 32 people died.
Each boating accident takes Moses back to the night of July 31, 2009, and the fishing outing with her father Brian Moses that changed their lives.
'Daddy, I'm going to die'
Molly Moses loved the Tennessee River. In the summer, she lived on the water, fishing from and tubing behind her father’s bass boat.
On that last night of July, six weeks after her 16th birthday and 10 days before the start of her junior year at Decatur High, Molly Moses went fishing with her father.
It was 11:30 p.m. when they decided to stop at one last spot. No one knows what caused the vessel to jerk to the right as the boat started. The marine police speculated that the boat ran over a submerged log, but Brian Moses could not recall feeling or hearing a knock.
As Molly Moses was thrown into the water, Brian Moses, who was connected to the kill switch, was flung to the passenger's seat, but not far enough from the steering wheel to stop the boat. The propeller of the outboard motor sliced through Molly Moses' left leg, right foot and hip.
"Daddy, I'm going to die," Molly Moses said.
Firefighters waited on the dock when Brian Moses' boat sped into Ingalls Harbor. Minutes later, a medical helicopter transported Molly Moses to Huntsville Hospital. The report from the nurses was grim — it appeared the patient had no blood in her body.
“There was an intervention of some kind because Molly shouldn’t be here. But there is a reason she is," Brian Moses said.
Lessons in acceptance
In Molly Moses’ Southeast Decatur home, Eensley Moses sidled up next to the wheelchair and patted her aunt’s leg.
"Moomoo, they saved you from the water," the 5-year-old said. “You got hurt, but you’re better now.”
The accident, Molly Moses said, has allowed her to teach her nieces and nephew about kindness and acceptance.
“My oldest niece had a kid in her class that could not use his hands. She said she was the only one that was really nice to him. She said, ‘You only have one leg and you’re normal and he is, too. He is just different,' ” Molly Moses said. “Maybe just by seeing me, they will learn that no two people are the same, everybody’s different and that’s OK.”
Those lessons go beyond the Moses home.
"In public, if she sees little kids staring, she'll call them over and start talking to them. She doesn’t get upset. She understands little kids will look at her, say things and wonder. She takes it as a moment to teach them something," Brian Moses said. “Molly is so strong and so patient and so determined. I know that Molly has what it takes to make a difference in this world.”
Medical career awaits
Even before the medical staff removed Molly Moses from the ventilator four days after the accident, the community dubbed her a hero.
They called her “Miracle Molly.” They hosted concerts, organized silent auctions, held blood drives and sold “Miracles for Molly” rubber bracelets. Many closely followed her recovery. They knew of the 55 units of blood she received during the 18-hour surgery that saved her life. They read of the decision to amputate the lower part of her left leg after an 18-day battle. And they celebrated when, after 108 days in the hospital, she returned home.
As much as Molly Moses appreciated the community’s financial, emotional and spiritual support, she struggled to grieve under the spotlight.
“For years I thought, if I cry, if I show weakness, I’m letting everybody that prayed for me down. Superheroes don’t cry. They don’t show weakness. Now, I realize how crazy it was for me to think that, but at that time, I felt like I would let so many people down, and the one thing I didn’t want to do was let this community down,” Molly Moses said.
In the first several years, she repeated the story of the accident thousands of times to people who randomly stopped her in public.
“People genuinely care about Molly,” Brian Moses said. “We live in one of the most fabulous, giving, caring places in the world. There are so many people that supported us and prayed for us. Even today, people pray and ask about Molly.”
Molly Moses, who still gets stopped two or three times a week, echoed her father’s view.
“I truly do love my community. Decatur has been phenomenal throughout all my ups and downs. I’ve had the most supportive neighbors, friends and family. I’m so forever grateful for every single prayer,” Molly Moses said.
She still keeps in touch with many of the first responders and medical staff that saved her life, including the EMT, who, unable to find a viable vein, drilled into her exposed femur; the nurse that encouraged her to keep fighting; and the surgeon that led the 18-hour surgery.
"I’m not a hero. All my nurses, the EMTs, the doctors, the firefighters, they are the heroes," Molly Moses said.
In hopes of touching patients the way her medical team impacted her, Molly Moses will graduate from Calhoun Community College’s phlebotomy technician program in January.
"If I can help one person get through something like I went through, that is what I want to do. My experience being a patient, having them dig and fish and prod, that’s what really made me feel compelled to go into phlebotomy,” she said.
Molly Moses is still on the road to recovery. During the past decade, she has undergone 96 surgeries, most of them for hernias and an obstructed colon. One surgery, a bone growth surgery, attempted to lengthen Molly Moses’ femur so she could wear a prosthesis.
“I’ve tried four different companies and worked with some of the best prosthetists in the Southeast. We just haven’t had any luck yet,” Molly Moses said. “This is God’s plan for me now, to be in a chair. One day, when more amazing technology comes about, perhaps I will be able to walk.”
On July 18, she celebrated one year surgery free — the longest time between operations since 2009.
“This has been a hard road. Molly was still growing up and trying to find her place in the world when this happened. She’s had her personal challenges, but she has learned from them,” Brian Moses said. “I am very proud of her. She’s got the mindset that she’s going to overcome anything put before her and she won’t feel sorry for herself or let it hold her back.”
In June 2011, Molly Moses boarded her father’s boat for the first time since the accident.
“At first, if a boat was in front of us on the road, I’d get a panic attack. It was good for me to go back on the river and see the propeller and face my fears. But I haven’t been on a boat since and don’t want to get on a boat again,” Molly Moses said.
She credited her family for providing the support she needed to overcome physical and emotional obstacles. From her father, she found strength. From her grandmother, Norma Williams, she understood the importance of leaning on her faith. And from her mother, Polly Poole, she learned to focus on the good.
“My mom can find a piece of gold in a mud puddle. She taught there’s always somebody worse off than you are. I carried that with me. I’ll get down and depressed, but then think, well, God woke me up this morning and that is a blessing. Being down isn’t going to get me anywhere. Every day, I wake up and tell myself to choose joy,” Molly Moses said.
Preaching water safety
On June 8, as the summer water recreation season began, Moses turned to Facebook to urge people to practice safety.
“Don’t go get toasted, bake in the sun all day and drive the boat back. It’s not safe. … I was with the safest driver, completely sober, not a single drug in his body … and look at me. It happens, even when you are being as safe as possible and doing the exact same thing you’ve done your entire life.”
“Y’all just don’t understand,” Molly Moses said. “This whole summer, I’ve just wanted to stand on top of the bridge and scream at people to be safe.”
Last month, as reports of water-related deaths accumulated, Molly Moses started speaking out for the need for increased water safety and for the Legislature to look into stricter laws and increasing marine police units.
Patrolling Alabama’s 1 million acres of lakes, 1,600 miles of rivers and 53 miles of coastlines, which are used by more than 1 million people each year, rests with the Alabama Marine Patrol Division. Sgt. Chad Pate said Alabama has the most navigable waterways in the nation. The northern division, which includes the Tennessee, Coosa and Black Warrior rivers and numerous lakes, including Smith, Bankhead, Lay, Logan Martin and Neely Henry, is patrolled by around 20 marine police.
“We have 132,000 waterways in Alabama. Some of those are streams and creeks, but we also have the Gulf of Mexico, the Tennessee River and all our lakes. I would love to see more marine police to enforce the laws,” Molly Moses said.
She also questioned the age requirement to operate a boat. In 1999, Alabama implemented the mandatory operator license, which set 14 as the minimum age to operate a motorized vessel without supervision. The law, which is similar to the requirements of many other states, also requires that boat operators have valid proof of boater safety certification, received by taking a written or oral exam.
“If you have to take a written exam, get in a car with a stranger and master a checklist of skills before driving a car at 16, why don’t we at least do that with a boat? The whole idea of being 14 and being able to drive a boat without an adult is beyond me. I mean, I was failing algebra at 14,” Molly Moses said.
She voiced her concerns in a letter to state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
Orr said he is willing to look into water safety concerns, but also noted the steps the Legislature made in recent years. In 2013, the state approved penalizing people obstructing public waterways by anchoring or abandoning a vessel. And in 2014, the Legislature passed an amendment that said a person operating a vehicle or water vessel under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be charged with criminally negligent homicide, a Class C felony.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to try to make a difference,” Molly Moses said. “This year has been so tragic. I’ve been anxious, heartbroken and in disbelief. There are 25 families grieving loved ones because of boating accidents. We need to do better.”