TREASURE ISLAND — Debbie Shoemaker was wading in waist-deep water in the Gulf of Mexico when she felt something like "a big hard punch in my face."
A pelican had just flown into her, its beak piercing her cheek. Shoemaker was taken to the emergency room, where a plastic surgeon gave her 26 stitches inside and outside her mouth.
"A terrifying experience, especially being by myself," said Shoemaker, 50, who was visiting from Toledo, Ohio. "Nobody would have ever thought that it could happen, but it could and it did."
Floridians know to watch for stingrays and to be wary of sharks, alligators and snakes. But pelicans are usually considered harmless.
"I do not recall an incident with a pelican," said St. Pete Beach fire Chief Fred Golliner, whose agency responded to the accident Thursday afternoon.
Barbara Hatcher, who lives in Tampa, felt for her friend.
"My first thought was, jellyfish, stingray, maybe sand shark, but never a pelican. My heart just breaks for her, it really does."
Shoemaker comes to the area regularly to enjoy the weather and visit Hatcher. The two have known each other since second grade at Jackman Elementary School in Toledo.
Shoemaker was staying at a Treasure Island hotel and went for a swim. When the pelican struck her, she saw it out of the corner of her eye. "I immediately put my hand to my face, and blood was just gushing out."
Some other beachgoers assisted her, and paramedics took her to Palms of Pasadena Hospital. She said one doctor was about to give her stitches but decided that a plastic surgeon would be better suited for the job.
Shoemaker decided to end her vacation early and fly back to Toledo on Friday.
"I've been traveling by myself for four to five years and I've never had anything happen to me, and I've been coming down to that area for the last 40," she said by telephone Friday after returning home.