By Audrey Frazier
If Ella Wickersham had her way, her 21-year-old son Charles might take up golf in lieu of spearfishing.
But she’s not counting on it. Even sharks can’t keep him out of the water.
“I’m sure what happened won’t change things for him,” she said. “He’s been going into the ocean ever since he was four.”
Charles, or C.J., is home after a 10-day hospital stay and nearly 100% the person he was before an 11-foot bull shark tore into his left thigh, leaving a 15-inch gash down to his femur. The attack left C.J. with only minimal muscle lost, but nothing that would prevent his return to the waters located within minutes from the family’s home on the barrier island Longboat Key.
“The doctors did an amazing job,” Ella said.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon (Sept. 24, 2011) when C.J. and others onboard the 24-foot craft decided to take a last splash in 40 feet of water several miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. They left behind on the boat the spearfishing equipment used earlier that day. Minutes into the swim, C.J. saw the shark approaching. He managed to punch the shark in the snout but not in time to thwart the bite.
Two friends who had yet to go in the water immediately dove in and pulled their screaming friend back onto the boat. Calls from their cell phones alerted both 9-1-1 (Manatee County Emergency Communications Center) and his parents to the attack.
“His friends had started first aid by the time they called,” said Manatee County Emergency Communications Center dispatcher Amy Todd, who answered the call to 9-1-1. “They had tied a tourniquet around his leg to help stop the blood loss and they weren’t about to take it off.”
Application of a tourniquet is not on the approved list of Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) Pre-Arrival Instructions (PAIs) for serious hemorrhaging; however, since taking off a placed tourniquet can worsen the bleeding, Todd did not ask them to remove it. She relayed conditions and estimated time of arrival updates to EMS and cautioned his friends against letting C.J. fall asleep.
“He told his friends about feeling drowsy,” she said. “I told them to make sure he stayed awake.”
Throughout the several-minute full-throttle ride to reach the Rod and Reel Pier where medical assistance would be waiting, Todd could hear the wind, the boat, and the efforts to keep C.J. calm. No one was screaming or acting hysterical, she said, and later she found out that a friend on the boat had held C.J. close in a tight bear hug to prevent further massive blood loss. The others worked to keep him as calm as possible.
Paramedics on scene treated the wound while waiting for the arrival of the Bayflite helicopter that whisked C.J. to the Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Although he had lost a substantial amount of blood, he was reportedly alert and conscious during the flight.
Five units of blood and 800 sutures later, C.J. was recovering and expected to leave the hospital once the threat of infection passed.
“He’s one lucky guy,” Todd said. “He had a great group of people helping him and I was able to do my job because of having the protocol to follow.”
Manatee County Emergency Communications Center Manager Jim Lanier credits the successful outcome to more than just luck.
“It was a great call,” he said. “Amy kept the caller calm. She did a really good job of managing the incident and utilizing the protocol appropriately.”
According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), bull sharks are considered by many experts to be the most dangerous shark in the world because of their size, territory that includes freshwater, and the number of them thriving in waters close to large human population centers. While they are characterized as nature’s perfect bullies, sharks are actually very discriminating when selecting prey. There are numerous accounts of sharks, apparently making a beeline for a spearfisher’s catch, plucking off the fish while completely ignoring the fellow holding it. C.J. was not spearfishing at the time of the attack.