Jessica Brothers attacked by shark at North Carolina Topsail Island.
Bit by shark and hit by car, athlete perseveres
By Sam Borden • Journal News columnist • November 20, 2008
Here's the thing about getting bitten by a shark: No one believes it actually happened. Not your boss. Not your swim coach. Not even your mom.
Jessica Brothers got bitten in August while surfing near her family's summer home in North Carolina. She and her buddy Josiah had just paddled out into the Atlantic when she saw a tiny splash nearby and then felt a thump on her right leg. It didn't feel like three rows of molars; it felt more like someone had smacked her with a baseball bat. Suddenly, instead of facing the ocean, she was spun around on her board and facing the beach.
She hustled back to shore, and when she came out of the water, Josiah gasped. "Look at your leg!" he said. That was when she saw the blood on the sand. It was a bull shark, experts would say later. Between 4 1/2 and 5 feet long. The wound had the rounded-football shape of a shark's jaw, and Brothers, who is a junior on the swim team at Purchase College, needed 120 stitches on the outside of her right calf, with 40 more on the inside to stabilize the muscle.
"We pulled out seven teeth with tweezers on our own," she said. "Later at the doctor they got four or five more and some fragments, too."
The pain was real, and she uttered "quite a few bad words," but sharing the news of her new status as fish food proved particularly difficult.
When Brothers, who is from Putnam Valley, sent pictures of her leg to Peter Nestel, swim coach at Purchase, his response was: "Seriously - whose leg is this?"
Same from her boss at the North Carolina EMS unit where she works each summer. He listened to her story and said: "Look, do you just need a day off?"
Then there was her mom. Brothers had missed a few calls from her mother while she was trying to clean the bite. When she finally answered her cell phone and explained why she hadn't been picking up, the reply was: "You're going to have to come up with a better story than that."
No, seriously, Brothers said. Shark bite.
"Right," her mom said. "I'm coming over with a camera."
Truth is, you can understand the doubters. Getting bitten by a shark is UFO rare: According to the International Shark Attack File, there were 50 unprovoked shark attacks in the United States last year. Fifty. In a country of more than 300 million. The chances of winning an Olympic medal were higher (110 American medals at the Beijing Summer Olympics). "Just lucky, I guess," Brothers said with a weak smile.
Luck. Right. Brothers also beat the spread on getting hit by a car, by the way. Statisticians estimate there's about a 0.5 percent chance of a pedestrian being struck by a vehicle, but Brothers managed to break her right wrist two months before the shark incident when a woman backed into her while she was unloading a stretcher from an ambulance. She put her hand out to protect herself and ended up black-and-blue from the base of her palm halfway to her elbow. Three weeks of a cast, then three weeks of a brace.
"She was backing out of her driveway," Brothers said. "I thought she would have seen - I mean, flashing lights of the ambulance, I was wearing a white shirt ... but she accelerated as she came out into the road and hit me."
Broken right wrist. Bitten right leg. Oh, and she's still recovering from a dislocated right shoulder that required surgery after she slipped and fell down some wet stairs in her dorm two years ago. "At this point, the left side of my body is basically bionic," she said. "I just figure it can't be cracked."
While some of her teammates occasionally (and good-naturedly) call her "Shark Bait," the running joke lately has been about how no one can decide if it's safe or unsafe to be around Brothers. After all, bad things keep happening to her. Then again, they keep happening to her.
"It might seem like a trend, but the reality is that each of these things is an isolated event from a statistical perspective," said Dr. Karin Reinhold, a professor at the University of Albany and a probability expert. "No one is more prone to so-called bad luck. It's like flipping a coin - if it comes up tails eight times in a row, that doesn't mean it's more likely to keep coming up tails. It's the same 50-50 odds as before."
Brothers said she hasn't spent too much time pondering the mathematical craziness of what's happened to her. As tri-captain of the swim team and holder of three school records in backstroke and butterfly, she's been more focused on making up for all her lost training. She had first-place finishes in the 100-yard individual medley and 50-yard backstroke against Sarah Lawrence on Tuesday night and will swim in a meet against John Jay College tonight.
"If anyone can come back, it's her," Nestel said. "She's incredibly dedicated."
All the same, Brothers admitted she has been thinking a little more seriously about taking the advice several friends have offered in light of her knack for beating the odds.
Considering everything that's happened to her, the suggestion just makes too much sense to ignore:
Play the lottery.
Reach Sam Borden at firstname.lastname@example.org