My Patient - The Shark Attack Victim

A number of years ago I worked at a small community hospital on the west side of the island of Kauai. I lived on the Big Island so I would fly over to Kauai and work two 24 hour shifts back to back. It was not too stressful. Some of my most interesting and challenging patients were at that small hospital.  One mid-morning, a pick-up truck drove into our ambulance parking site and a young man in wet surfing pants ran into the ER shouting: “the shark took his whole lower leg off!!”  

Sure enough, a young 19-year-old was in the bed of the pick-up with a bungie cord wrapped tightly around his left thigh! He was awake, but in shock. His first words as we transferred him to the gurney: “I’m so sorry, I’m all wet and sandy and I’ll mess up your ER!" We heard no ‘poor me’s’!!! His friend’s story was that they were surfing at Polohale Beach which is a favorite site about 8-10 miles from the hospital. When the patient yelled at his friend, “I think a shark hit my left leg, I’m going to the beach!!”  His friend immediately picked him up, put him in the back of the pick-up, then applied the bungie cord to his thigh as a tourniquet!! 

In the emergency department, we immediately started universal donor blood and IV’s as he was in shock. We called transport to send him to Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu and they sent a helicopter!! Later that evening I got a call from my friend at the emergency department at Queens to let us know that he was in surgery and doing very well!  

About two weeks later I was on duty and a young man on crutches with a missing left lower leg and his friend came into our emergency department with flowers and boxes of mac nut chocolate. Yes, we all were teary-eyed and gleaming!  

About a year later, I was getting ready to board the plane going home from a shift and this young man tapped me on the shoulder saying, ”I thought you might like to see my great prosthesis!!!” He handed me a box of mac nut chocolates and gave me a hug. I said to him: "Mahalo! And remember, it takes a team to do what we did for you!” His outcome was all the reward I needed, but I do love mac nut chocolates!!!

Some Ways to Avoid Shark Attacks:

Even though shark attacks are extremely rare, there are some things you can do minimize your chances of getting attacked.

  • Avoid swimming in areas where you see lots of fish or seals as these can be shark feeding grounds.
  • Swim in groups, or at least with a partner. Make sure you know what is going on in the surrounding water environment.
  • Avoid swimming in the ocean at dusk, dawn or at night.
  • Don’t swim in waters known to be frequented by sharks. Check with lifeguards or other authorities for specific, regional information.
  • Avoid swimming in dirty, murky water. It can impair your vision and increase the chances of an encounter.
  • Don’t enter the water if bleeding as this can attract sharks.
  • Don’t wear shiny jewelry either, as this can also attract sharks.
  • Don’t wander too far from shore.

Shay Bintliff, MD is an emergency physician on the Big Island of Hawaii.  She is also an accomplished writer, comedian, athlete and community volunteer. 

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