Surviving to tell the story obliges me to do so.
The sand was white, very white. The water was clear but that ironically did not help me foresee what was about to happen. We were in the middle of paradise, isolated from all the problems in the world. The girls were playing, the moms were smiling and my adventurous spirit saw another opportunity to explore, feeding the primal need men have for scouting and mapping their surroundings.
I went back to the boat that brought us to the island and grabbed my mask and fins and decided to take my fishing spear, more for protection I thought, as I had already decided not to go fishing this time. Luckily, the local who brought us by boat decided to stick around as opposed to his usual routine of dropping us off and picking us back up later.
I began swimming and the sheer beauty of the lagoon enticed me to keep kicking and go further. When I reached the edge of the lagoon, about five hundred feet from the boat, I saw some rocks and peeked over them. Beyond the rocks, the water got deeper, revealing the most beautiful coral reef I had ever seen (and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen some great ones).
Entranced by the splendor surrounding me, I swam deeper into the reef abandoning all caution. There I spotted a grouper, one of the most challenging and delicious fish, begging to be caught. It was perfectly still - positioned as if fated to be on our dinner table that night. A hunter will always be a hunter, I thought. So without hesitation I aimed and got the perfect shot, delivering the benefits of a quick and certain death. Dinner was secured. It was pretty big so I removed it from the spear and grabbed it with my hands. That’s when, despite many years of spear fishing, I made the number one mistake: never swim with your catch.
I swam a little bit longer before deciding it was time to go back. I was heading towards shore and had already left the reef behind, back in the safety of the shallow water and the brightness of the sunrays that appeared to extract all the white from the sand.
I was happy in my own little world, present and calm when suddenly, and with no warning whatsoever, an electric shock ran through my whole body. I felt a strong, intense pull from below and when I turned, I found myself face to face with the other great protagonist of this story: a lemon shark about six feet long who still had my right leg in its mouth, overflowing with teeth.
I had been in Exumas spear fishing for a week and had not once seen a shark around, something that surely would have kept me alert but inevitably led to my carelessness.
The bite marks left by my predator help narrate my story. The marks engraved in the front of my leg are not very deep, proving that as soon as the shark realized I wasn’t a fish, he let go instead of trying to rip off my leg with his body like a whip.
We stared each other in the eye for just a second, though it felt endless, and just as suddenly as he appeared, he turned around and vanished but not before leaving me with a souvenir of our very brief encounter. It took millions of years of evolution and only one second to prove the perfection and accuracy of the shark’s ability to find and tear apart flesh. One quick bite was enough to rip open my entire calf. I saw my muscle dangling and a river of blood streaming out of what was left of my leg while my only thought was how my open wound was also an open invitation to the rest of the shark public.
My survival instincts kicked in and took total control. I began to swim backwards holding my hanging calf muscle with one hand and pointing my spear back out with the other expecting all the other tooth-filled mouths that would soon appear from the blood-drenched waters.
I swam another hundred feet and began screaming for my friend Omar, who fortunately was nearby. He first thought it was another celebration of a big catch and then quickly realized it was the opposite. This time I was not the one at the top of the food chain.
Omar ran and jumped in the water but not before taking his shirt off like they do in the movies. When he saw my leg, I could see it took all his courage and conviction to compose himself and find the strength to be resourceful. He screamed for the boat, which came relatively quickly by Bahamian standards, where everything runs in perpetual slow motion. They got me into the boat and wrapped my leg in a thick towel, but that didn’t stop the boat from turning into a bloody Jackson Pollock.
We went back to the beach to pick up my wife Maria, my daughters Luna and Kayla, and Omar’s wife and son. The only thing my wife had heard at that point was “shark”, and when she saw the boat soaked in red she couldn’t avoid the idea that I was bleeding to death right in front of her. I remained strangely calm and focused, telling everyone what to do, drunk on adrenalin I guess, and the disbelief of what was happening to me.
Here is where the other chapter of this story begins, a chapter that I would say, was even more terrifying than the attack itself. They got me off the boat, hiding me behind a large towel and shielding the kids from what otherwise would have meant years of expensive visits to the shrink. I was then bundled into a police car that had the lingering smell of a country with no running water.
We arrived at the “clinic” in Exumas. By clinic, I mean a badly painted room with an old cast iron cot in the center. There was no one to be found since it was Saturday afternoon. Twenty minutes later the staff arrived and after inspecting the damage they gave me some good news: I wasn’t actively bleeding (my body wasn’t being drained of life through my veins) but they followed this with some bad news: the injury was so severe that I had to hire an “ambulance plane” to fly to Nassau. By ambulance plane I mean the back compartment of a very old Cessna used to carry potatoes from one island to another. It was one of those precarious flights that put to the test if God really likes you or not.
During that flight, the idea of being a father filled my thoughts and the imperative need to see my daughters grow up formed an ever-tightening knot in my throat.
Thirty-five minutes and two thousand four hundred dollars later, we landed in Nassau where an ambulance was waiting for me. The driver rushed us through the city, driving like a maniac (we almost crashed three times) and I arrived at the hospital happy to have survived the ride. All that rush, for what, I thought? When entering the hospital, I realized I was also entering a dimension where time stood still. It was evident that the difference between hospital and hospitality was far more than three letters.
In the emergency room there were about forty people, some screaming for no reason, some complaining loudly about their pain and others talking very loudly, to themselves. Those pacing around in circles confirmed my fear: this was more like an insane asylum for people in wrapped in bandages. On the other side of the room, the sound of an unanswered telephone ringing incessantly and the laughing chatter of the staff who ignored everything around them struck me as how medical routine can lead to a certain desensitization.
A guy came to see me and looked at my leg indifferently, as if he were inspecting a piece of fruit at the market. He left without saying a word. After another fifteen minutes of being ignored, I began to raise my voice until they finally took me to get x-rays, revealing another piece of good luck: there were no broken bones.
Lying face down I could only hear the reactions of shock of those looking at my leg. Apparently it was more ghastly than the fruit they usually inspect. Upon seeing the injury, a wincing nurse told me that I would have to see the doctor. After another twenty minutes of waiting, a doctor, with the same wincing expression, told me that this was a case for the surgical specialist, since there were tendons exposed. But he explained that the surgeon was currently operating and would get to me as soon as he was finished. Thirty minutes passed: “He’ll be right down”. Another thirty minutes went by: “I just saw him, he is on his way down”. Forty minutes later: “Sorry, he’s now in another operation”…
After about fifteen “He’ll be right downs” and three very long hours during which my muscle was still detached from the bone and divorced from the rest of my leg, I realized he was also a specialist in the art of disappearing. I lost my patience and demanded to speak to the manager; a very kind and civilized lady. She tried to calm me down admitting I was right but reminded me that I had to understand that this was a public hospital. “What??!” I asked in disbelief. “There is a better hospital than this one?!!”. “Oh, yes” she calmly answered, “It’s right next door. It’s a much better hospital, but also much more expensive.” I couldn’t believe it. I demanded to be taken there IMMEDIATELY.
After waiting another thirty minutes for the new ambulance, finally I arrived to a much nicer facility, without the screams or crazy people wandering aimlessly in circles. The doctor arrived twenty-five minutes later. She saw my leg, and promptly sent me to surgery, warning me that I was probably going to lose a lot of muscle and who knew what else.
Nine hours after the bite, the surgery was finally performed. I spent two and a half hours enjoying peace and quiet, courtesy of the anesthesia, and awoke happy to feel my leg back in one piece again.
The next day the doctor came by and told me that I was very, very lucky. She barely had to remove any muscle, was able to reconnect all the severed tendons and miraculously the teeth had missed the main nerve that conveys all the feeling and sensation from the feet to the brain, which essentially saved me from having my foot chopped off. Everything was fine and I was going to fully recover. That was eerily close, I thought.
That same Sunday afternoon, I somehow got into a taxi and headed to the airport with my leg held straight by its cast and resting on the seat. The window was open and it began to rain. I felt the raindrops on my toes and it was without a doubt, one of the most beautiful things I have ever felt.
I left Nassau and was reunited that evening in Miami with my wife and the girls who had flown directly from Exumas. On the flight over, a woman passed by my seat and pointed at my leg, sarcastically asking: “So what happened...a shark got your leg?” When I answered that actually that was the case, her face contorted as she began to apologize profusely. I laughed and begged her not to worry. Right away I realized what would happen every time I told the story as the other passengers crowded around asking for more detail, displaying the same kind of morbid curiosity that explains all that rubber necking on I-95.
The next day I had to go see a specialist in Miami to confirm that what they did in Nassau was well done. There something happened that changed my perception of health care in the US all together. I called Kevin Berkowitz, a great doctor that fixed my other ankle two years ago. I had switched health insurance plans since then, and he didn’t work with my new one but insisted I see him anyway and we’d figure something out. I arrived at his office and, of course, no one could believe what had happened to me. Suddenly ten people, who had never seen a shark bite, were around me wanting to satisfy the creepy intrigue fed by all those Discovery channel documentaries. They even asked if they could take pictures. I told them I didn’t mind.
As they were cutting the bandages, it felt like that moment after someone gets plastic surgery and they anxiously remove the gauze eager to see their new face in the mirror. My bandages were gone and what I first saw were ten frowning faces in perfect sync with all the other faces that had seen my leg the past three days. After recomposing himself and checking the wound out, the doctor told me that everything looked good, I wouldn’t be able to put weight on my leg for four weeks and a full recovery would take at least three months. So I asked him about the insurance non-coverage of his servicdes, and how we could solve it. He looked at me and said: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to charge you”. Seeing my disbelief he explained “You took one for the team, man! If it would have been a barracuda bite I would have charged you but it was a fucking shark!”
So, here I am, recovering from the physical and processing the emotional. I’m going to be the happiest patient in the world at physical therapy. It could have been much, much worse. What could have been a tragic story will just be an anecdote. No doubt it was one of those experiences that change you as a person, but it’s still to soon for me to understand how. Right now, I’m enjoying every minute, and the saying “I’m happy to be here” has a whole new meaning for me. I’m at peace and I have nothing against sharks. In fact, quite the opposite. In some weird way I feel a spiritual connection with them now. All of this has made me discover an inner strength I didn’t know I had.
Many years of believing I was immortal left me with a stab wound in the back when I was twenty defending a friend in a fight, screws in my shoulder from trying a new aerial trick skiing, broken ribs from kite-surfing, screws in my knee from the inevitable pull of gravity after jumping too high on a snowboard, a broken ankle from riding a motorcycle among ostriches in Patagonia, and many more. If scars could tell a story, you would say I have a whole book. And despite all of those experiences I’ve lived through, none have so clearly shown me how ephemeral life is. Funny how the fragility of life can you make stronger. Funny how being so close to death can make you feel more alive.
Seeing a fin in the water is not nearly as alarming as not seeing that we spend our lives worrying about what’s irrelevant. I’m convinced that the shark didn’t come to take a piece of me but instead to leave me with something. A kind of wisdom that I will never ever forget, written with eighty stitches and my own blood.
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