Shark Survivor: Shark bites can be a...
By PATRICIO G. BALONA
Matt Crawford, seated near his beloved surfboard recently in his Ormond-by-the-Sea home, still has severe scars and is unable to use his right hand after a shark bit him seven months ago
ORMOND BY THE SEA — When a large baitfish crashed into Matt Crawford´s surfboard as he paddled toward a wave seven months ago, he didn´t know his life was about to change.
A few seconds later, Crawford felt something "like a bear trap" clamp onto his right hand. The baitfish had been escaping from a shark. The shark grabbed Crawford´s hand instead.
The creature yanked Crawford, 48, off his board and plunged him into the ocean near the Laurie Drive beach approach in Ormond-by-the-Sea. In a few seconds, the shark´s razor-sharp teeth sliced through Crawford´s hand, leaving it hanging by a piece of skin.
Crawford´s injury that September afternoon was one of 317 in Florida from 1998 to 2002, according to statistics compiled by the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida´s Museum of Natural History. But most victims were not seriously injured.
"Six of the bites were significant injuries, including three deaths and three where significant tissue was lost," said George Burgess, director of the program.
There is no way to measure the psychological toll on those who survive a shark attack.
"It was like a dream," Crawford said. "I kept pulling my hand and I kept telling myself that it just wasn´t real."
Matt Crawford watches his son Tyler, 13, get ready to surf just a few yards away from where Matt sustained a severe shark bite seven months ago. The bite has left him unable to use his right hand, costing him his job, health benefits and the ability to surf with his son.
When the shark let go of Crawford, he clambered back on his board, bleeding heavily into the water. He feared the blood would make the shark return and shouted for help, but was not heard on the crowded, noisy beach.
For almost 20 minutes, Crawford fought panic and dizziness as he made his way to shore, fearing he would drown as he was continually pounded by the big waves. He clung to his partly severed right hand.
"I held it with my left hand because I thought it would fall off," Crawford said as he recalled his ordeal, lips trembling. "I kept saying ´I don´t want to lose my hand.´"
His son found him at the shoreline and called for help.
At Halifax Medical Center, Dr. Vija Moradia, a plastic and hand surgeon, worked for five tedious hours to reattach Crawford´s hand.
Matt Crawford displays his hand next to a photograph of his hand seven months ago after it was bitten by a shark as Crawford surfed a few blocks from his Ormond-by-the-Sea home. At least two more operations are needed for Crawford to regain the use of his hand, but he is unable to pay for the procedures.
"There was a lot of damage," Moradia said. "All the soft tissues were shredded and the nerves and tendons were hanging like spaghetti."
Crawford, who was once an avid surfer, still allows his 13-year-old son, Tyler, to surf in the ocean right at the end of the street where they live -- the same water where he was attacked. Tyler recently participated in the Eastern Surfing Association Tournament in New Smyrna Beach and qual ified for the nationals.
Crawford worries, he said, but he also understands the love of the sport. And he believes shark bites are rare.
"As surfers, we saw the sharks all the time," Crawford recalled. "We all used to joke that someone would be bitten and get his 15 minutes of television news fame."
But the shark that bit Crawford gave him more than 15 minutes of fame.
He lost his job as a courier because his right hand is now useless and crippled; although he can drive an automatic transmission vehicle with one hand, he can no longer lift packages for delivery.
His bills are mounting and he and his son face eviction from the house where they have lived for the past 10 years.
Crawford needs at least two more operations. Moradia said the follow-up surgery will rectify nerves that have stopped growing and release tendons that would make the hand more functional.
But Crawford lacks the $20,000 for those procedures. His applications for disability and Medicaid were rejected by the Department of Children & Families.
"I am just frustrated and I feel like I am being let down by the system," Crawford said. "I filed for disability, but I´d rather go back to working a full-time job, if only I can get the little help I need."
Crawford said he was granted Medicaid benefits for therapy soon after he left the hospital, but a new caseworker reviewed the case and the state discontinued the benefits.
Darrell Boudreaux, the agency´s economic self-sufficiency program administrator, would not comment on any specifics of Crawford´s case, citing client confidentiality.
So far this year, five people have been bitten by sharks in Volusia County -- the most recent was on Wednesday when a surfer from Lake County was bitten in New Smyrna Beach.
Brevard County currently leads the state with six bites this year, but shark researcher Burgess said that status might change by the end of summer.
"Volusia County puts more people in the water," he said.
He said surfers are by far the most likely shark victims. Shark attacks in Florida for 2002 numbered 29, a marked decrease from the 37 bites recorded in 2001 and 38 bites the previous year.
"The decrease in shark bites is due to the natural ups and downs in nature," he said -- the result of changes in weather patterns, ocean currents, the fish´s food supply and the number of people entering the water.
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