Reporter survives shark bite
Tuesday, June 7, 2005
By DEBBIE SALAMONE
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE
Orlando Sentinel reporter Debbie Salamone describes her encounter with a shark and her struggle to recover from the wounds.
ORLANDO, Fla. - Disbelief struck when the shark's jaws wrapped around my foot.
I kicked wildly, momentarily breaking its fierce grip. Then the fish sank its teeth into my flesh a second time and I lashed out again.
A slimy body slithered between my legs, but I couldn't see the attacker through the breaking waves and dark waters.
I was caught in a feeding frenzy as the shark pounced 50-feet from the beach at Canaveral National Seashore in Volusia County, Fla., where minutes earlier I had been blissfully jumping and floating in the salt water.
Suddenly, I was falling, my right foot useless.
"It's got me!" I screamed as my arms shot forward in a panicked plea for help.
My husband had ridden a wave to shallow water seconds before the attack. Hearing cries for help, he turned, saw me struggling and waded back in to drag, then carry me ashore.
I collapsed onto the beach and water washed over my mangled, shredded foot.
Blood gushed out, staining the receding waves.
Yet a soothing calm descended. What should have been agonizing pain was a dull ache - nothing worse than stomach cramps.
Medical experts say an adrenaline-induced release of endorphins can account for such a reaction. It happens to soldiers on the battlefield who continue fighting without realizing they've been shot or lost a limb.
I understand the scientific explanation. But I also believe something more miraculous was at work that afternoon last August.
Out of the mists of shock and confusion, I felt someone holding my foot. The angel of mercy it turned out later was Tecla Lucignani, a nurse, who as luck would have it, was returning unusually late from her daily stroll along the ocean's edge.
"Do you have a towel?" Tecla shouted, seeing me lying face-down on the beach, blood draining into the sand.
"Get my towel from the beach chair," I told my husband.
Tecla immediately wrapped the injured foot tightly in the towel and applied pressure, being careful to keep it elevated.
But the tide was rising, relentlessly chasing us up the beach and forcing me to keep crawling awkwardly to dry land.
When the rescue workers arrived, they cleaned my wound then one of them flopped me over his shoulders - fireman style - and the other grabbed my legs. Thus, we exited from the beach, to the backdrop of crashing thunder and lightning, so typical on a Florida summer afternoon.
Rain was slashing against the windshield as my husband drove and I sat stunned in the passenger seat of our car under the watchful eyes of Tecla in the back.
Nearly an hour passed between the shark attack and reaching the emergency room at Bert Fish Medical Center in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.
"Your Achilles tendon is completely ruptured," a doctor said after examining my foot.
His words conjured images of being disabled for life, no longer able to enjoy my passion for dancing that had filled my life since I was 5 years old and first slipped on a pair of pink ballet slippers.
"What does this mean?" I fearfully asked the doctor.
I cannot recall his exact words, but relief flooded over me when he said it could be fixed and explained that many people - including well-known athletes - have snapped their Achilles.
"Don't worry," the doctor smiled. "You'll be back to dancing next year."
An orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Charles Kollmer, stitched my tendon, its sheath, my heel pad and skin.
Afterward, I was wheeled to a room where I lay awake all night, images of the day running through my head like an endless video.
Last year, only 61 people in the world were reported to have been attacked by sharks. At the national park where my nightmare began, only two others have been bitten in the past decade.
The odds of a shark attack in Florida are 1-in-11.5 million, according to the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File.
I was more likely to be struck by lightning.
Becoming a statistic was no consolation. I felt what had happened was unfair. Here I was, a woman who delighted in exercise and dancing. I even avoided wearing fashionable, high-heeled shoes or sports in order to assure that my feet were always in perfect condition for ballroom dancing.
As a child, I performed ballet, tap and jazz routines. I took up ballroom dancing after college and it has been my joy and escape from daily stress ever since.
When I dance, I feel free.
The attack struck my psyche in other ways.
I had always felt at home in the sea. Growing up in Satellite Beach, Fla., I spent summers on the beach. This kinship with the ocean helped foster my love of nature and I was able to build on that in my job as an investigative reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. I loved writing stories about the environment and had recently completed an ocean science fellowship.
Beach patrol workers call shark bites "nips."
But this "nip" threw my life - and the lives of those around me - into chaos. I was put on paid disability leave by the Sentinel.
My husband, Craig Wickham, and my mother, Theresa Salamone, worked their schedules around my care. Between my needs and the upkeep of my elderly, high-maintenance, 100-pound dog, Frankie, my family had their hands full. Friends brought meals and checked in on me.
As everyone with an injury eventually realizes, little things become the biggest obstacles - getting food, taking a shower, washing clothes.
For about seven weeks, I kept my foot elevated in a cast. At the beginning, it hurt too much to put my leg down even for a few seconds to move around with a walker. The pain eventually lessened, and I could occasionally use the walker. But most days, I ended up scooting around on my behind.
Other times, I rolled around in a wheelchair. But with my leg outstretched, I couldn't reach inside the refrigerator. I couldn't fit into my closet. I couldn't even get close enough to the sink to wash my hands or brush my teeth. I discovered it's nearly impossible to carry a plate of food in a wheelchair when you need both arms to move the wheels.
I felt renewed admiration for people with disabilities that would never heal like mine, and would never escape the frustrating dependence on others.
In late October, the day before my 39th birthday, I was fitted with a strap-on walking boot that kept my leg stable. I looked like a stormtrooper in one of the "Star Wars" movies.
My injured leg had shrunk to half its original size and I couldn't stand on it.
Add weight gradually over the next two weeks, said my post-operative doctor, Steven Choung at the Jewett Orthopaedic Clinic in Orlando, Fla. So I leaned on a walker or a cane. I tried marching in place. But taking a real step was simply too painful.
After two weeks, I was no nearer to walking. I sat in my wheelchair and cried. I just couldn't do it.
As was typical throughout my long recovery, the next breakthrough occurred just when I thought I had reached the end of my rope. Two days later, I was walking around my house in my boot, unassisted. I moved as though I had a peg leg.
After another two weeks, I shed my boot for tennis shoes, started driving and scheduled physical therapy. My foot was still so weak, swollen and stiff that I limped with every step.
"Jump up on the table here while I torture you," therapist Tiffany Oglageo joked when I first arrived for my sessions at Florida Hospital's physical therapy program at the RDV Sportsplex in Maitland, Fla.
Not one of the 30 sessions I had with Tiffany and Beth Kintzler, were torture. Instead, they were my gateway to a normal life.
Therapy focused on stretching and strengthening the tendon as well as rebuilding the leg and foot muscles.
One day, I panicked when Tiffany urged me to climb up on a platform and step down. I couldn't imagine my foot handling all of my 128 pounds. But with my heart pounding and palms sweating, I did it.
Another time, I nervously asked Tiffany to stay by my side as I balanced on a wooden beam on the floor. But I never needed to lean on her.
Eventually, many of these scary tasks seemed simple again, and I could push weights with my foot and walk around the room on my heels and toes. Every day, I lectured myself about limping, but that was as much a psychological battle as a physical one. It took months of practice and concentration to walk normally.
Each time I conquered a goal, I translated it to dance. Balancing and bending on my bad foot meant I could do a key move in a bolero; a rise up on my toe meant I would soon be waltzing.
My foot burned and felt like someone was sticking me with sharp needles. But I didn't complain. Every exercise, every extra pound of weight, every scar-reduction massage moved me closer to the dance floor - my spiritual home.
I rejoined my friends at the Christmas dance for our club, USA Dance. I managed to dance about 10 times.
Before the shark attack, I would rarely sit down during the three-hour ball. I used to waltz across the floor in large, graceful strides. In a swing, I could snap around in a spin in less than a second.
Now I was too afraid to spin, and I was off balance. But I knew time would be the cure.
By late January - with more physical therapy - I was in good shape. I could spin. I could balance. I could waltz with grace.
Yet I was still afraid. I feared somehow my foot would betray me. Then as the weeks wore on, and the music played, doubt melted away.
I didn't want to waste this second chance. I have let myself love the freedom and energy of dancing more than ever.
Dance helped heal my soul.
I had come a long way since the shark ripped into my foot. At first, I hadn't wanted to go outside, let alone think about going to the beach. Somehow, in my misery I felt as if I had been betrayed.
I had wondered if the attack was a message and that I needed to change direction. But then I would consider the amazing events of that Aug. 29, 2004, and the answer would come. God didn't bring this upon me; He helped me through it.
This wasn't meant to change my path. This was designed to test my resolve.
I felt drawn once more to Wekiva Springs, Fla., my year-round swimming hole. My love of nature returned. So did the passion to write more about the human impact on the environment.
However, to be truly free, I knew I must return to the beach.
On a scorching May day, I pull my car into the national seashore parking lot. Tecla and I had arranged to meet so I could thank her once again.
As I climbed the stairs to the walkway over the dune, the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt filled the air. I realized nothing has changed.
I was as enraptured by the sea's beauty as I had ever been.
Tecla arrived and for the first time saw me standing.
"Are you ready to go back in the water?" she asked. "I'll go with you."
We walked together toward the water's edge. The foamy waves caressed my scarred foot. We took several steps into the sea, but barely beyond our ankles. Some of the bigger waves splashed water up to our waists. The images of the past nine months played in my mind. I felt an ache and stiffness in my foot.
I realized I couldn't go any farther. Not today. Not here.
"Just take it in small steps," Tecla said. "One day, you'll get back in. What happened to you was a fluke."
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