Naval officer honored for saving unconscious man in wreck

cconley@islandpacket.comMay 5, 2013 

When she first saw the accident scene, Navy Lt. Michelle Lea feared what she might find upon closer inspection.

Lea, 30, a physician assistant at Naval Hospital Beaufort, was driving to work on Parris Island Gateway about 6:15 a.m. April 16. Moments earlier, a garbage truck had T-boned a pickup, crushing the driver's side door of the smaller vehicle.

"It didn't look good based on the way the truck was," she said Friday.

The pickup driver, the lone occupant, was thrown to the passenger side on impact. The truck's heavily tinted windows prevented a clear view of the interior. Lea climbed quickly into the truck's bed and looked through the rear window.

The driver was unconscious and struggling to breathe.

Lea pushed the upper half of her body through the small window and began performing a "jaw thrust" -- a maneuver designed to open the man's airways without destabilizing his spine.

It worked.

He started breathing.

Paramedics soon arrived and took the injured driver to Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

The man, whose identity has not been released, survived and continues to recover.

On April 25, Lea received the Navy Achievement Medal for her role in the rescue.

"Lt. Lea is an exemplary naval officer and an outstanding physician assistant," Capt. Joan Queen, the Naval Hospital's commanding officer, said in a statement.

"Her actions upon arriving at the scene of an accident show that she is not only a dedicated health care provider, but an asset to the command, the Navy, and even the local community."

Cmdr. Carol Smith, the director of branch health clinics and Lea's supervisor, agreed.

"She has always exhibited a great deal of clinical expertise. But more importantly, she has the ability to think on her feet and displays sound judgment," Smith said.

Originally from Sturbridge, Mass., Lea has been in the military for almost 12 years and has lived in the Beaufort area for about 30 months. She works for the naval hospital and helps treat female recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

Like many heroes, Lea doesn't see herself as one.

She said she was honored to receive the medal, but she said her actions weren't extraordinary.

"You just see the problem and do what you need to do to help," she said. "I would imagine others would do the same thing."

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