What happens when 3 sharks attack at once?
MORNING READ: Newport Beach dentist comes to the rescue on remote Fiji island.
By LAYLAN CONNELLY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER.
The massive Fijian was sprawled out on the ground, blood soaking through three towels pressed to his left arm.
First sight of the large open wound – tendons and muscle mangled into a bloody jigsaw – made Corona del Mar resident Tom Rolfes turn his head in disgust.
Moments earlier, three sharks had just attacked Rutu Meli while he clung to a fish he had speared. The sharks apparently didn't appreciate that Meli wouldn't let go of his dinner, or when he punched one in the snout.
"We need to get him an arm surgeon," Rolfes said.
Problem was, there were no surgeons – not for arms or any other body part. They were far away from modern medicine. Getting to a hospital would require a boat ride to the mainland, then a four-hour drive – and they couldn't even locate a car.
Fifteen years earlier, a man with a shark bite was brought to this small island resort. He bled to death.
Rolfes — a dentist by trade – told his 17-year-old son Timmy to grab his emergency supply kit.
He also told Timmy: "Get some gloves on."
The Rolfeses are an iconic Southern California surfing family.
They live in Corona del Mar, but when you walk through their home you'll see photos of the family surfing all around the world. Summers are spent at a beach house in Hawaii, where the three Rolfes boys have enrolled in junior lifeguards programs. They surf with skilled locals.
Timmy was all of 3 when his dad put him on the tip of his surfboard. Timmy's Mom, Carrie, learned to surf just so she wouldn't be left behind.
And vacations usually revolve around waves. Frequent trips include surf spots in Mexico and Indonesia. The less crowded the break, the better.
"It was my culture growing up," Rolfes said. "As time goes on, you become more affluent, and you go by plane to nicer, warmer spots. Surf travel has always been a part of my life."
About a month ago, Rolfes and his son Timmy set out for a remote island off Fiji. Timmy, who holds a 4.2 GPA as a senior at Corona del Mar High, plans to spend next year at the University of Southern California. The trip was the perfect time for some father-son bonding.
Rolfes started researching a place friends from Hawaii had told him about through the "coconut telegraph." It's so remote, it's not even marketed as a surf destination.
When asked about the exact location, in true surfer fashion Rolfes smiles and says he'd rather not reveal the spot.
But it has a beautiful surf break, with turquoise waves right next to a reef, shooting off a couple feet overhead to triple overhead sets when the conditions are just right.
"It was just us. It's so off the beaten path… that's what surfers look for, uncrowded, pristine surf," he said.
There is one resort on the island where guests stay, but the word "resort" is used loosely – meaning it's somewhere between a hotel and tent camping.
Electricity is run by generators. Depending on the tide, it only takes 20 minutes to walk full circle around the island. It only has one phone, used only for emergencies.
For Rolfes, Timmy, and two surf buddies who joined them, it was paradise.
"It opens your eyes," Rolfes said. "The rest of the world is not Newport Beach."
The native fisherman come by on their boats to watch, Rolfes said.
But their paradise wasn't quiet for long. On day five, Meli was brought into the resort with a fresh shark bite, bleeding everywhere. Rolfes was looked to for help.
Shark bite surgery
Rolfes told the woman in charge — a Fijian princess – that the bleeding had to be stopped.
He urged the woman to ask locals who had gathered around Meli to grab a massage table where they could prop him up. Rolfes gave him some antibiotics, and stuck an IV with sedation medication in his arm to put him to sleep.
As he started the surgery, Rolfes was anxious. At his office in Costa Mesa, when he puts someone to sleep in his dentist's chair, trained staff is on hand to monitor the patients. There's equipment to make sure everything is OK with the person's heart rate.
Here, it was just him.
"This is not my specialty, I sew in the mouth," he said. "For 25 years, I've been operating on people, but arms are definitely not my specialty."
They started pulling the skin back together, pushing fat back into the arm where they thought it was supposed to be. The Rolfes surf buddy, Brian Simpkins, pinched the skin together while Rolfes sewed. Timmy dabbed away blood.
"When I first saw (the wound), there was no skin. Just muscles and tendons," he said. "I started using anything we had to put this guy back together."
The Fijian princess dabbed Rolfes forehead as he concentrated. When he needed something, he'd whisper it to her and she'd bark out an order to the 30 or so natives who had gathered to watch.
After four hours, every stitch he had in his kit – about 200 of them – was woven into the man's arm. The bleeding ceased. And a car finally arrived to take Meli to a hospital.
When Meli came back into consciousness, everyone around broke out in applause.
Then, Rolfes said, "we had cocktails."
A tribal thanks
About a week later, Rolfes was walking down a dirt path. A man approached and asked if Meli could come and see him.
Rolfes had been asking about Meli's progress. From what he heard, doctors at the local hospital took one look at his stitch job and said it worked fine. They did nothing more.
Meli's journey from the mainland to the island where Rolfes was staying wouldn't be easy. The injured man walked barefoot three miles from his village to the boat dock, where he was picked up and brought to the small island.
Rolfes and Timmy were instructed to sit on a couch. His wife, Carrie, and another son Ryan, 16, had since arrived on the island.
The head man of the island sat next to the head honcho from Meli's tribe, both speaking to each other in their native tongue. They were retelling the story, clapping their hands between sentences.
Meli's eyes didn't leave the floor. He wouldn't make eye contact with the Rolfes
"I didn't know what was going on," said Timmy. "Was he pissed at us?"
But this was the way of their culture. It's a sign of respect to not exchange glances with someone who had helped save your life.
"It was surreal," Rolfes said.
Meli was able to thank Rolfes. He gave the dentist-turned-surgeon a woven mat, a hat, coconut oil and Fijian root.
"I'm just glad we were there. I don't know if he was going to die," he said. "He might have lost his arm, he might have bled to death. Who knows?"
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