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My Recollections of the Shark Attack
Posted by Joseph Ferrar on Monday, November 7, 2011
I've been putting off writing this blog for some time. Probably because it's not an experience that I'm too fond of reliving. However, watching the Nat Geo video clip forced me to come face to face with the memories, and I wanted to capture my thoughts of what happened that morning in this blog.
The attack took place at Balian Beach, on the west coast of Bali. Having spent four or five days at Uluwatu on the south coast, we were keen to explore different parts of the island. We'd read fantastic reviews about this place and we weren't disappointed, as we settled into a great little wooden shack with views out across the surf.
On the third morning of our stay in Balian, I headed out for a surf before breakfast. The waves were perfect for a chilled out early morning session – clean, long right handers at 3ft – 4ft. The only downside was the water. Whilst it was warm, the flood water from the nearby river mouth had brought with it a brown murky colour with zero visibility below the surface. Deep in my mind a thought registered that this might not be the safest place to surf. However as anyone who is addicted to surfing will testify, these quotes are quite quickly suppressed and hidden by the thoughts of how great it could be.
After turning off the back of another great wave, I began the slow paddle back out to the line up and my mind turned to breakfast. I'd been surfing for about 90 minutes and the thought of the eggs and toast back at the hotel was a big pull. “Just a couple more” I thought to myself. It's always just one more wave.
In hindsight, I wish I'd turned and paddled into the beach right then.
The end of the wave was roughly 150m from the beach. I was paddling slowly back out to the lineup. As I dipped my right arm methodically into the water I felt the quick shock of a huge pull at my forearm. Instinctively I yanked my arm out of the water. Just as my arm came free, the back of a shark broke the surface, and disappeared down into the murkiness below. From memory, I saw the grey skin and a back that was about 30cm wide. At first, I thought I'd seen a pointy nose and my initial thought was not that I'd seen a shark, but for some reason, a dolphin.
I stared at my arm to see a lump of flesh hanging off and blood everywhere. Immediately I panicked. I grabbed my arm with my left hand in an effort to hold it together and at the same time I started shouting for help. I'm not sure exactly what I was shouting, from memory words weren't really forming properly and I guess it was more just a garbled noise. But it must have been clear that I was in distress as immediately another surfer started paddling towards me. I heard an American accent shouting “I need some help over here!” and could see the startled and confused faces of the other surfers in the lineup.
I knew that I needed to get out of the water quickly and was bracing myself for a second attack. All I could think about was how much blood was in the water.
I started to try and paddle with my left hand. Luckily Mike, the American voice I had heard, was moving quicker than I was, and arrived by my side in no time. I could see the concern on his face as he approached, I must have looked a real mess. In hindsight this must have been a pretty scary experience for Mike also, paddling into bloody water to rescue someone when you know that there is a hungry shark in the vicinity. It was fantastically brave act and one that I am eternally grateful for, and will never forget.
Mike waited for a wave to come through and pushed me onto it. I rode the wave into the beach and it suddenly hit me whilst I was lying on my board that I should check my arm and see how bad it was. I released the pressure that I had been applying with my left hand and my arm simply flopped open with my hand. The flesh was hanging off and small jets of blood squirted out. This was when it really hit me. I was immediately convinced that I was going to lose my wrist and hand.
Many people have asked me at this point if it was painful. The honest answer is that I can't remember. The pain definitely kicked in later, however I think in the initial stages the adrenalin overload largely suppressed any physical feeling.
Once I got out of the water Mike helped me free from my board, tournaquet my arm below the elbow with the leg rope and helped me up towards the hotel with my arm above my head. By this time a crowd had gathered and I could hear various conversations about what had happened whilst the crowd watched me with a mixture of apologetic and almost suspicious looks on their faces. There seemed to be discussion over whether it was a shark or more likely a fin cut. I remember feeling extremely frustrated and I vaguely remember telling someone that “I saw the f*cking thing!”
At this point in time Scott, who was to become a real hero for us, took control. With the help of his friends I was temporarily bandaged with a towel, laid down on the road with my feet held above my head to prevent me from going into shock and a car was organised to take me to hospital. Meanwhile, an Australian girl set about tracking down Penny who had gone out for a run that morning. “Don't tell Pen” I told her, “this will really upset her”.
“I think she's probably going to find out mate” replied the girl in a fairly comical tone.
Scott managed to find a car to take us up to the local medical centre in Balian village and I laid down on the back seat. He jumped in next to me, together with Pen, who had arrived at the scene to find a crowd of people and talk of shark attacks. Later, Pen would tell me that she thought I had lost my hand. The towel bandage covered my whole lower arm so it must have looked like the whole thing had been bitten off. I remember at this point feeling bad for the guy who's car I was in. I was covered in blood and I'm sure that by the end of this short journey, so was the back of his car.
The medical centre at Balian village was a nightmare. They laid me down on a bed and unwrapped the towel to look at the wound. At this point the pain really kicked in and I could see by the look on the doctors face that the prognosis wasn't good. He looked scared and this fuelled my mental anguish. Scott quickly set about arranging how we were going to get from Balian village to a hospital in Dempasar and meanwhile the local Doctor bandaged my arm as best he could and Pen did a fantastic job of keeping me awake. I remember feeling incredibly tired and just wanted to close my eyes for ten minutes. This seemed like the only way that I could escape the mental anguish and throbbing pain that had been building since the towel had been removed.
An ambulance was out of the question. It would be three hours before one could get to Balian and we were told that the quickest way for us to get to the hospital was by taxi. Scott tracked down our temporary emergency vehicle and before long I was laid on the back seats and we were on our way to the Hospital. The drive took three or four hours. It felt more like five or six to me and my thoughts were filled with all sorts of doomsday scenario's about what the end result was likely to be. Surely if they didn't operate soon the risk of me loosing my hand would increase? How am I going to get by without my right hand? What about the trip? How will I drive!?
Pen and Scott did a great job of keeping me talking – this can't have been easy for them as my conversation skills were at an all time low and they too must have been fairly scared about the whole situation, especially Pen.
We found out during the journey more about Scott. He'd been in Bali for a few months from memory and had experience with the hospital that we were heading to. He'd worked as a school teacher and amazingly was from Mansfield, a mere 30 minute drive from my home town and end destination for the year. The pain had become almost unbearable during the early stages of the taxi ride however luckily the doctor in Balian had given me a valium before I left and this helped keep the pain in check.
Scott had called ahead to the hospital that we were heading towards, informing them of what had happened and asking them to be ready for our arrival. We arrived at BIMC hospital, where many people had been treated following the Bali bombings in 2002, and I was quickly into a wheel chair and through into and examination room. It would be another nine hours before I was taken into the operating theatre for the stitching to begin. For me the nine hours were filled with answering the questions of the medical staff about what had happened, if I was allergic to any drugs and when I had last eaten. I went for a couple of X-rays to assess whether the bone had been broken and endured a couple of closer investigations as the doctors tried to asses how bad the damage was. These were pure agony. As soon as the bandages were relaxed from my arm, the pain was almost unbearable.
During this period Pen was juggling the administrative side of things whilst trying to keep my spirits high and keep her own emotions in check. I am eternally grateful for how she dealt with these two difficult tasks. I never once saw her show signs of fear in front of me, when I'm sure she must have been wrought with anguish inside.
The one thing that made all of this a little easier to deal with was that we had good travel insurance policies. We had chosen World Nomads travel insurance as they specialise in the more adventurous side of travel and the comfort of knowing that they would cover the costs of my medical bills up front was a huge weight of our minds. The cost of the surgery alone was expected to be over AUD$10,000 and so paying for this out of our own pockets would have finished the trip before we started it. This really made the AUD$650 that I paid for my 12 month policy seem worth while.
I am eternally grateful to Pen for being adamant that we should purchase travel insurance before leaving Australia. I have always understood the necessity for travel insurance, however, have a tendency to let these things slide as I get caught up in the more pressing aspects of travelling like packing, planning where to go and generally celebrating being on holiday. I'd never had any problems on any previous trips that I'd been on and I think these experiences helped to lower the urgency in my mind for preparing for the worst. However as we sat in a pub in Fremantle having left BOB with the shipping company, Pen insisted that we go online and buy our policies and it was probably one of the smartest moves I have ever made.
Finally the surgeon arrived and with everything sorted on the finance side, it was time for the surgery to begin. I was wheeled into the operating theatre at around 9:30pm, with a strange feeling of excitement that we were going to make some progress after nine hours of waiting and thinking. The operating theatre was a strange experience for me. Firstly I hadn't expected there to be music playing! And I was surprised by the number of people in the room, all of whom paid me no attention. The anaesthetist got me to lay down on the bed in a crucifix like position with both arms extended on surfaces either side. Pen had been telling me how they often give you a countdown during which the anaesthetic kicks in before you reach zero. I remember waiting for someone to start counting and then the next thing I remember I woke up with tubes up my nose and a huge bandage on my arm. I had been in surgery for four hours and luckily things had gone well.
Only during surgery could the true impact of the wound be properly assessed. The prognosis didn't sound good. Five tendons and all of the muscle controlling the lifting of my fingers and thumb had been completely severed. Damage to the muscle controlling my thumb was particularly bad as most of it had been ripped away. The good news was that my wrist bone hadn't been snapped and the surgeon was fairly positive about my recovery. He expected that the vast majority of movement in my hand would return and that it shouldn't take much longer than six weeks. His advice was not to continue travelling, the risk of infection was too high and there was no chance of me driving, but instead to fly home to UK and wait for healing process to take its course.
I was shocked the first time my bandages were changed. It was the first chance I had to properly look at the damage and it looked much worse than I imagined.
There were 120 stitches on the outside and my arm looked like a patch work quilt! It was also really swollen and misshapen and I hadn't seen the lacerations on the underside before. I spent another four days in the hospital on a wicked cocktail of painkillers and antibiotics whilst Pen made arrangements for us to fly to the UK. During this time Scott and a few of his mates visited which was a real nice touch (and a real mission when you think that its a eight hour return trip from Balian Beach!).
Amazingly the anaesthetist also doubled up as an amateur photographer and was delighted to tell us that he had taken a series of photo's through the operation. It took me about a month before I was ready to look at them and they still make my stomach turn even now. Check out the photo gallery if you want to see them.
My recovery was painfully slow to begin with. I was supported by the physiotherapy unit at The Northern General Hospital in Sheffield who, as you can imagine, were somewhat surprised to be dealing with a Shark bite! Not too many of those happen around Sheffield. For the first six weeks I was asked to do nothing except wear bandages to bring down the swelling. This was hugely frustrating for me as I wanted to be taking actions to make things better. To take the healing into my own hands. However as the old saying goes, sometimes the best course of action is to take no action. Finally at around six weeks the swelling had gone down significantly, the stitches had been removed and I was ready to begin physiotherapy. Its a strange feeling when you think about trying to move your fingers but no matter how hard you try, they don't move. But slowly over the next few weeks the movement increased and with some heavy massaging, the scar tissue began to break down a little.
During this period Pen & I were adamant that the trip would continue. It was more a question of when we could restart it and how much time we would have to cut out of the journey. We'd be planning for so long and no shark bite was going to ruin our year off work! Plus we couldn't just leave BOB stranded in Singapore on his own! On that front we were very lucky. National Geographic have an office there and a few of the girls there kindly offered to get the car through customs for us and store BOB at there house. Lucky for us as the storage costs at the port would have killed our budget!
On our seventh week in UK we met with the hand surgeon at The Northern General who gave us the news we'd been waiting for. We could get back on the road again! I would need a 2nd operation when I return but that could wait and I couldn't do any additional damage in the meantime. We flew back out to Singapore eight weeks after the attack took place full of excitement. Continuing with the trip has been a great way to recover as we have had so much to focus our attentions that we quickly forgot about the whole experience. I have had very few nightmares or uncomfortable moments thinking about the attack. I've been back in the ocean surfing and kite surfing without too many worries and my arm has continued to improve, almost to the point where I don't notice it.
It feels unbelievable to be reflecting on a shark attack so candidly, but I think it's fair to say that I've learnt some important lessons this year, and I'm truly thankful of the help I've had. If there's some advice I can pass on to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else it's this:
•Think about where you surf - A muddy river mouth early in the morning increased my odds of being attacked significantly. And unfortunately it can happen to you.
•Try and surf with someone else around - If I had been on my own I would have been screwed.
•Get travel insurance - when this sort of thing happens the last thing you want to be worrying about are the finances. In my scenario the total cost came close to $15k.
And finally, a huge thank you to:
Pen – you were truly fantastic throughout this whole nightmare experience.
Scott – Thank god you were there! From Mansfield to Balian to help a fellow Northerner in trouble. I won't forget it and I still owe you that pint!
Mike and the guys at Balian Beach – when this sort of stuff happens, you can only hope that people around you will help. I was very lucky that you guys were there for me.
My family and Pen's family – for being there when we most needed you.
BIMC and The Northern General – Fantastic treatment and fantastic people.
World Nomads – These guys really change your opinion of insurance companies. We were never in any doubt that we would be covered and the personal touch was appreciated.
The teams at National Geographic AU and National Geographic SG – Huge thanks for all your support through this and for sorting out BOB for us. Much appreciated.
We thank Joe for sharing his experience with us!!!