California shark attack in 2015
‘A shark attack saved my life’
The gash on Eugene Finney’s back where he believes a shark hit him while he was swimming in the ocean near Huntington Beach, Calif. in July of this year.
Eugene Finney felt the slippery warm weight of his daughter in his arms, the sting of salt water as the two of them dipped beneath the surface, the crush of one of Huntington Beach’s storied waves as it rumbled over their heads.
And then he felt something else, something massive and menacing, slamming into his back. His vision glittered and went dark. Finney clutched his daughter closer and fought to swim up, too dazed to try and think about what had just happened. All he could do was make it back to shore.
Only the next day did he realize that a shark was probably responsible for his bloodied and bruised back.
The residual pain from the attack is what brought him to the hospital a few days after that, where he was hit by an altogether different kind of beast: a CAT scan showed a small tumor on his right kidney. He had cancer.
Luckily — to the extent that any cancer diagnosis can be described as lucky — the doctors had caught the tumor unbelievably early. It was still small, still easily removed.
A little less than three months later, he is out of the hospital, absent all signs of cancer and only had 20 percent of his kidney removed. He is going to be okay.
That’s how Eugene Finney, 39, wound up being possibly the only man in America who will happily say, “a shark attack saved my life.”
“I got a message from Mother Nature,” Finney said in a phone call from his home in Finchburg, Mass., where he is still recovering from the procedure that removed the tumor. “That’s what started this series of events that brought me to the hospital to let me know about this.”
He continued: “Otherwise I would never have gone in, and they wouldn’t have caught it. … The only real way I would have found out was the tumor growing so large it was metastasizing and spreading and then —” he breathed in through his teeth, sharply, “I would have the symptoms of stage four cancer. I would have started losing weight and getting sick and at that point it would have been too late.”
“If I could find this shark and give it a hug, I would,” Finney said. His tone was light, but he wasn’t laughing. He really sounded like someone who would give a shark a hug.
That’s not to say that the attack and the gut-wrenching months that followed weren’t traumatic. Often, Finney will look at his daughter and be taken back to that day at the beach, her small body in his arms, shocked and struggling in the surf.
It was July 13, a Wednesday, near the end of their vacation to visit Finney’s parents in California. His two children were there, Temple, then 10, and Turner, 6, as was his girlfriend, Emeline McKeown.
Temple and Finney were out near the breakers, treading water and waiting for the waves to come. When a particularly big one approached, Finney saw his daughter’s eyes widen and grabbed her to him, dipping below the surface to let the wave pass over them rather than trying to ride atop it.
That’s when the hit came, with a force that defies metaphor.
“I would say it’s like being hit by a ton of bricks, or like whiplash from a car, but it’s not that,” Finney said. “I’ve never been hit like that before.”
Breathless and in searing pain, he kicked back to the surface and slowly made his way toward shore. Only once they’d reached shallow water and stood up to walk the rest of the way, did Temple point out, “Dad, you’re bleeding.”
The hit — whatever it was — had opened up a thin gash along his upper back. Clutching a towel to his wound, he and Temple went to the showers to clean off.
When they returned, they saw McKeown and Turner standing in a crowd at the water’s edge, staring out toward the spot where father and daughter had been ten minutes before. They’d seen the ominous gray triangles of two dorsal fins skimming through the waves. The lifeguards cleared the beach. Finney and his family went home.
The next day, still in severe pain, Finney turned on the news. “Shark warning at Huntington Beach,” blared the breaking news crawl across the bottom of the TV screen. An “aggressive” great white shark had bumped a surfer not far from where Finney himself had been hurt.
“That’s when I realized that’s what happened to me,” he said. “That shark or a different shark hit me too.”
Finney can’t be sure that it was a shark that caused his injuries, though it seems the most likely explanation. There were no boats or surfers around with their boards. He and his daughter didn’t see driftwood or other large objects floating in the water near them. And sharks were spotted at Huntington Beach three days in a row the week he was there.
Not wanting to cut the vacation short, Finney didn’t seek treatment for his injury, and the family flew back to Massachusetts that weekend. But the plane ride’s pressure changes exacerbated Finney’s pain. He couldn’t lie down and his breathing had become erratic. On Monday, he made it through only 40 minutes of work at the Fitchburg Art Museum before driving to the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, feeling like he was in the midst of a heart attack, an aneurysm, something.
Several hours of tests, x-rays and a CAT scan revealed no heart attack, just swelling and bruising around his heart, something that could be healed with pain medication and 10 days of bed rest.
“After they finished telling me the diagnosis, I thought, ‘well, that’s that,'” Finney recalled. “But then they started talking about the CAT scan. They referred to it as an ‘incidental find.’ It was a tumor on my right kidney about the size of a walnut. … They said, ‘I’m really sorry to tell you this, but you most likely have cancer.'”
Finney’s insides turned leaden. He was 39. He was healthy. He had kids. Cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to him.
Eugene Finney after surgery to remove a small tumor from his right kidney. (Courtesy of Eugene Finney)
But he set up an appointment for another scan, got his prescriptions, and left. He told his girlfriend, but not his children, about the tumor. He got his second CAT scan and waited for a diagnosis. He beat off depression with a stick.
Three weeks later, Finney walked into the offices of Dr. Ingolf A. Tuerk, MD. He sat in the waiting room among people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, all looking sick enough it made him worry what he was doing there. Then he was called into Tuerk’s office, where he sat among the oncology posters and sterile surfaces and waited nervously for the doctor to arrive.
Tuerk, a big German man with a Harley Davidson surgical cap, strode in smiling, sat at the desk across from Finney, and told him, “You’re not going to die.”
Pointing to the results of the second CAT scan, he explained about the timing, the size of the tumor, the significance of catching it so early.
“He was so confident and so positive about it that I couldn’t help start to feel the same way,” Finney said.
Flooded with relief, it became apparent who he had to thank for his life.
And the emergency staff at St. Elizabeth’s, of course. And this apparently motorcycle-loving oncologist sitting across from him, telling him he would be okay.
But also the shark.
“It was Mother Nature’s message for me,” he said, repeating a favorite phrase.
A native of the northern Jersey shore and the son of a career Navy man, Finney grew up around the ocean. He’s lived on the beach, worked at an aquarium company. He has less fear and more respect for sharks than the average person.
“The ocean is their domain,” Finney said, and he feels like “the luckiest man alive” that when he struck out into the shark’s territory, it gave him a nudge that might have saved his life, rather than a bite that could have ended it.
Finney went into surgery on Sept. 22, undergoing a minimally invasive procedure that kept him in the hospital for only two days. A week later, he received the results of the biopsy: the tumor was cancerous, but his body was now cancer free. He’ll have to return to the hospital in six months for more tests, but his doctors are optimistic that the cancer won’t come back. Finney is young, and active, and his recovery is moving along quickly (though not as quickly as he’d like it to).
Meanwhile, the pain from the shark attack has completely vanished, leaving only a thin scar along his back to remind of what happened. And what could have happened.