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Published: Friday, 8/13/2004

Toledo father of injured 6-year-old girl works magic on her spirits

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For the Portala family of West Toledo, magic is a way of life.

Good thing.

Yesterday at Toledo Children's Hospital, family patriarch and chief magician Andrew Portala - whose stage name is Andrew Martin - hoped to pull some out of the black top hat perched upon his head.

His 6-year-old daughter, Emma, was recovering from a second surgery in three days after a Sunday boating accident in Lenawee County.

The injury was serious enough to threaten her right leg's future.

Three doors down from where Emma lay recuperating, Mr. Portala was scheduled at 2 p.m. to perform on a live Internet video conference feed to more than 100 children's hospitals around the country and in Canada.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Mr. Portala, a weekly visitor to Toledo Children's Hospital, where his magic boosts the spirits of the unit's adolescent patients.

"This is completely different; it's kind of weird," he said. "It never crossed my mind that one day it would be my daughter."

It was an hour before show time, and the family gathered in Emma's room.

She had a good lunch, and was showing some signs of her old self.

A photographer lurked nearby and Emma had informed her mother, Melissa Portala, that she would have none of it. To underscore her point, she covered her face with a large stuffed animal given to her by her grandfather, Kenneth Mickel.

Her brother, 8-year-old Eli Portala, one of the country's best young magicians and sporting a top hat identical to his father's, tried to loosen her up, but to no avail.

"She's a strong-willed girl," her mother said.

She also has a calm demeanor, which Mrs. Portala believes helped Emma get through the incident Sunday.

The family had just attended a week-long magic convention in Colon, Mich., where Mr. Portala and Eli performed, and Emma served as her brother's assistant.

On their way home, Emma and her 7-year-old cousin, Gabriella Mickel, also a magician, joined their grandmother, Toledo lawyer Marilyn Mickel, for a weekend at Ms. Mickel's home at Cub Lake.

Ms. Mickel and Gabriella were pulling an inner tube carrying Emma with Ms. Mickel's pontoon boat. As the boat neared the shore, Ms. Mickel says she shifted the boat into neutral but, unknown to her, the boat moved toward Emma.

The propeller, still in gear, struck the girl's right leg, cutting it to the bone in six places between her knee and ankle.

Emma shouted out and her horrified grandmother looked down to see the inner tube filled with blood.

"I thought 'What have I done?' " Ms. Mickel said.

Shouts to shore went unanswered so Gabriella sounded the boat's emergency horn. Trooper Andrew McNew of the Michigan State Police, handling a nearby property dispute, heard the blast, and wearing a bullet-proof vest and wool pants, jumped into the water and swam to the pontoon boat.

Aided by onlookers, Trooper McNew guided the boat to shore.

Mrs. Portala had driven up from Toledo and was nearing the lake when the ambulance that had been called to retrieve Emma passed her by.

"I briefly had a sinking feeling," she said.

The feeling turned to heartbreak when she saw her daughter lying on the ground. She wasn't moving. Then, Emma heard her mother's voice and perked up.

"Mama, it's my leg," she said, four of the best words Mrs. Portala ever heard.

Gripping a teddy bear given to her by Trooper McNew, Emma was taken to Hillsdale Community Health Center, where doctors opened the leg to cleanse the wounds.

That night, her leg in a cast, Emma returned home with her mother. But the pain was so great she refused to leave the car, where mother and daughter ended up spending the night.

After a traumatic Monday, during which the condition of her leg deteriorated, Emma was admitted to the hospital Tuesday morning. Concerned that infection may have set in, Dr. Richard Munk, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, operated on Emma's leg Wednesday night. He found fluid, but no infection.

"We were extremely relieved," said her mother. "I was worried she was going to lose her leg."

Mandy O'Brien, a nurse caring for Emma, said it takes six to eight weeks before such injuries are no longer considered a threat to infection.

Emma's mood brightened yesterday when her aunt, Linda Hopkins, turned up.

"I'm the family clown," Ms. Hopkins said as she examined Emma's many get-well gifts.

Soon after, Emma, a first grader at Grove Patterson Academy, consented to several photographs with her father and brother.

Mr. Portala finally turned his attention to the show he was about to deliver through the hospital's Child Life Program - a performance he considered canceling until his daughter's condition improved. Asked whether he might warm up with a few tricks for Emma, Mr. Portala said, "I think she knows them all. When my kids go to my show, they fall asleep."

Nearby, Ms. Mickel talked about Sunday's incident, saying she can't yet erase the guilt she holds.

But her daughter firmly dismissed any blame for what happened.

"It was an accident. The boat malfunctioned," she said.

Contact George J. Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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