Piercing pain. My right side was suddenly in deep, unimaginable pain from my upper arm to my waist. I didn’t see it or hear it. But I knew I’d just been bitten by a shark.
My immediate instinct—not panic and not prayer, even though I’m Catholic—just think like a triathlete and get to the finish line. I was 200 yards out—normally just a five-minute swim for me. I feared I’d get bitten again or bleed myself unconscious before I reached my husband on the beach. My body was literally being held together by my wetsuit.
I got lucky. Lifeguards were out in the water off Corona del Mar on that morning in late May of 2016—just the third time I’d seen them since I started swimming there every Sunday six years ago with an Orange County triathlon club. We’d always go at 8 a.m., right to left from lifeguard shack number one. But this time I was late and I swam alone.
I’d seen the patrol boat 10 minutes earlier when I started my swim and didn’t think a thing of it. Now, dog-paddling within shouting distance of them, I started waving my arms and yelling, “Help me, help me, I was bit by a shark!”
Within a minute, two lifeguards grabbed me under the arms and pulled me up on the boat. They told me they saw blood all over the water and that it was coming from my arm. The triceps was detatched. They made me hold my arm as they put a tourniquet on it. I just felt all this warm blood gushing. I let go of it when it started getting numb. Within 15 to 20 minutes, we were at the dock at Balboa. They saved my life.
When I got to the hospital, Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, I told the ER nurse, “I’m in a lot of pain, and I just want to go to sleep.” My race was over. I was in good hands, being taken care of. And I let go.
My injury list was long: three broken ribs, fractured pelvis, torn-up liver (but that grows back), and a severed femoral nerve. After three days in the ICU, my surgeon, Dr. Phillip Rotter, assessed my arm and said, “That’s kinda cool.” He asked me to wiggle my fingers. I did. “I didn’t think you could do that right away,” he said. “Your triceps was damaged a lot, and I had to do a lot of surgery to get it back.” A piece of it was missing, but muscle regenerates.
Bone doesn’t, so much. Two broken ribs were missing sections, and it’s a problem because I can’t bend over. Ever since the doctors allowed me to start moving in July, I get jabbed. I can’t swim freestyle because of the torque and deep breathing. I can’t bend enough to ride my triathlon bike. So I do the breast stroke and ride a mountain bike—very slowly.
I did a supersprint triathlon in October to help me psychologically get over a fear of going in the ocean. I felt no pain and finished 20 minutes faster than I expected. I want to do Ironman Vancouver in July, because 2017 will be my 20th year in the sport. I keep training because it makes me feel like I’m progressing. Your body heals faster and hurts less when you’re doing something. It keeps you positive. Besides, when your body is used to moving, you want to move.
Every day I remind myself that I got lucky. If those lifeguards hadn’t been out there that day, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.