by Jim Boyle
Claire Mastel got news last month of a $10,000 scholarship to the University of North Dakota while she was at home recovering from her 16th surgery brought on by a June 24, 2007, boating accident.
Tears came to the eyes of this blonde-haired Elk River High School senior. These weren’t the tears of pain or bewilderment she has experienced. They were tears of joy.
“It was really exciting,” she told the Star News. “It solidified things in my mind.”
Mastel, much like last year’s recipient, Jacob Greenmyer, a North Dakota native, was inspired to pursue a career in medicine.
She and her family were able to celebrate the news Sunday at the Mall of America Field on the sidelines of the Minnesota Vikings’ win over the Green Bay Packers. She sat across from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Love. She posed for pictures with Ragnar. And she got to meet Eric Perkins, who she’s grown up watching to grab Minnesota Twins headlines.
At halftime, she was the headline.
She was awarded a giant check representing this year’s Vikings and UND and Me academic scholarship, while flanked by former Vikings and UND football star Jim Kleinsasser and wife, Christa.
This year’s Vikings and UND and Me academic scholarship recipient was selected from a highly competitive group of top students from across the country, as well as international applications.
Joining Mastel on the field were her sister, Kate (a UND senior in the nursing program), and parents, Paula and Greg Mastel.
Mastel’s inspiration is a combination of expertise and kindness she was shown by the medical staff and physicians who attended to her during her recovery. With the University of North Dakota having the state’s only medical school, the pursuit of medicine is a common goal of many students at UND.
“Attending the University of North Dakota after high school is a no-brainer, given my interest in medicine,” Mastel said. “I want to earn my degree from a place where I will not only receive a wonderful education, but will also learn compassion.”
Claire Mastel once dreamed of being an architect until her world was turned upside down and inside out at the age of 12. Her dreams underwent a metamorphosis of sorts as she spent much of her youth in hospital beds and under the bright lights of reconstructive and plastic surgery. She now dreams of going into the medical field.
More specifically it’s her desire to go through medical school at UND in the state where she was born. She wants to become a musculoskeletal radiologist.
With the scholarship in hand her dreams are a bit crisper. She once wondered if she would live. Later, it was whether she would play soccer again.
Upon hearing of the scholarship, her thoughts traced back to that fateful day on the waters of the St. Croix River when she was thrown from her tube while being pulled behind a boat.
Try as she might to get out of the way of an oncoming boat, she couldn’t.
The propeller carved Mastel from the abdomen down, spinning her into a world of pain and uncertainty.
She described the experience in the body of a 1,000-word essay she submitted in seeking the scholarship. She wrote: “June 24, 2007, is a day I’ll never forget.”
Here’s how she tells of the horrifying experience:
“I was tubing with friends on the St. Croix River when I was thrown from my tube into the water. Almost immediately after resurfacing I noticed another boat headed in my direction. Despite my greatest effort, I couldn’t get out of the way and was run over.
“I suffered critical propeller injuries beginning at my abdomen, stretching down the entire length of my right leg, damaging immense amounts of flesh, nerves, and bone, all without ever losing consciousness.
“My injuries cannot be summarized easily. I suffered multiple fractures of the pelvis, femur, patella, tibia, and fibula. An evisceration of my abdomen exposed internal organs to dirty river water.
“The lacerations from the boat’s propeller went through my bones, and doctors had to implant metal plates and screws in them as well as reconnect severed veins and arteries.
“The soft tissue loss was too great to close my wounds, and I went through skin grafting as well as a muscle graft to allow for further recovery.
“Since my accident, I’ve had continuous problems with my leg. I lost half of my blood volume in the accident and endured seven of my 15 total surgeries throughout the four weeks I spent in Regions Hospital.”
The bonds Mastel formed with her doctors are impenetrable. They have shaped her.
One of her trauma surgeons on call the night of the accident was Dr. Peter Cole. As the chief of orthopedics at Regions, he was one of five surgeons who observed her injuries.
“Thankfully, Dr. Cole was also one of the two who didn’t want to amputate,” Mastel wrote. “This man is my hero.”
Every time he stopped in to check on her, he would ask what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I was a stubborn 12-year-old, and every time he asked I replied simply, “an architect,” she wrote in her essay. “My final week in the hospital, he finally broke me down.”
She told him: “‘I think I want to be a doctor, and change someone’s life, too.’ Dr. Cole had nothing but faith in me, saying it would be hard, but he knew I could do it.”
With his encouragement, Mastel has worked hard to maintain a 3.83 GPA through high school and received a score of 29 on her ACT.
She has taken accelerated classes, including AP literature, AP statistics, college level Spanish and psychology classes, and a time-consuming human anatomy and physiology class through the University of Minnesota.
She also is a member of the Elk River chapter of the National Honor Society (NHS) and is currently ranked 48th in a competitive class of 412 students.
Mastel was also recently offered the Presidential Scholarship for students with composite scores of 29 or above on the ACT through the University of North Dakota.
In the community, she has served as a child-care provider in her church nursery for the children of church members, and continues to volunteer each summer as a group leader for an annual vacation Bible school.
In addition to volunteer work through NHS directly, Mastel volunteers individually at a Feed My Starving Children location near her home and also frequently at the local CAER food shelf. The time she enjoys the most is working with residents at Guardian Angels Care Center in Elk River.
“I believe my hard work is exhibited through my accomplishments, and that it will follow me to UND next year,” she wrote.
She also has courage and a determination that rivals that of the Minnesota Vikings’ efforts in December to make it to the playoffs.
She refuses to let her accident scare her away from water sports, soccer fields or the medical field.
“I try not to focus on the bad,” she says. “I try to think big picture.”