CPR Helps Save Young Shark Attack Victim

Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, RedCross.org

July 18, 2001 —  Hundreds of sympathy letters and e-mails have arrived for 8-year-old Ocean Spring, Miss., resident Jessie Arbogast, the boy who lost his right arm and a large chunk of his right thigh in a tragic shark attack off the coast of a pristine Pensacola, Fla., beach, on July 6. Jessie's parents, who are not speaking to the media, have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from total strangers concerned about their son's welfare.

As Jessie, still in a light coma and in critical condition, shows hopeful signs of improvement, CPR instructor Jonathan Halpert is amazed that the boy has even made it this far. Although he has taught CPR for years, he can't help but feel awed over the beachside rescue that sustained Jessie's life until paramedics could deliver him to a Pensacola hospital.

While saddened by the dreadful event, the story also reaffirmed Halpert's conviction to training people in life-saving techniques. "I am more inspired to teach my next class," she said.

Jessie's Aunt Diana Flosenzier, a paramedic and former student of Halpert's, performed CPR on the boy after his uncle wrestled the 7-foot bull shark away. She was assisted by park Ranger Jennifer Loukota and bystander Suzanne Werton, a St. Louis schoolteacher who also was trained by an American Red Cross-certified instructor. Jessie was swimming in knee-deep water in the Gulf of Mexico with relatives when the shark attacked.

Despite the terror surrounding the scene, Werton says she felt the CPR-First Aid class had prepared her to handle the emergency. "I can't tell you what kind of emotions I had because I didn't think," said the 49-year-old St. Louis, Mo., resident who was vacationing on the beach with a friend when she learned that there had been a shark attack and rushed toward the crowd of people to help Jessie's aunt perform CPR. "I knew CPR and it just came natural."

Although Jessie remains in critical condition, it was those crucial first moments that allowed him to make it this far. "The fact that Jessie's aunt [and a bystander at the beach] practiced not just CPR but well-trained CPR, made all the difference to him," said Dr. Juliet De Campos, the orthopedic surgeon who operated on Jessie at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola. In addition to rescue breathing, Jessie's aunt also helped the young boy by creating tourniquets with a wet T-shirt and a beach towel to stop the bleeding from his thigh and missing arm, Dr. De Campos said.

At first, Werton had no idea how much a difference she had made. "After the paramedics took him away, I just knew he wasn't going to make it. When I went to bed, I couldn't close my eyes because all I could think about was him, and if he was going to be OK," she said.

The next morning, Werton received the good news from the local newspaper that Jessie still was hanging on, but she didn't realize the role she had played in helping him until later.

"[What I had done] hadn't really sunk in. Then I met Dr. De Campos while we were both doing an interview with CBS. She shook my hand and said that it was an honor to meet me. That's when I felt that I had made a difference, and I am really proud of that."

Halpert said the incident demonstrates the importance of CPR in saving and sustaining life. He has always reminded her students that they one day may have to use their skills to rescue a family member or loved one. "If people seem to be detached while practicing on the mannequin, I tell them to pretend it's someone they love, and sometimes they're more apt to take it to heart," Halpert said.

"At least one person in every household should be trained in life-saving first aid, CPR and AED skills," according to Connie Harvey, a health and safety spokesperson for the American Red Cross.

Although tragic, the incident shows the vital need to be ready when an emergency occurs, she added. "Even on vacation, when you're least expecting it, you may have to put those life-saving skills to use."

The generosity of hundreds of blood donors also made a difference in those initial hours. People lined up in masses at blood drives in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to help the boy regain the 30 pints of blood needed to keep him alive. "People have really been coming out and giving," said Kathie Barton, of the Alabama Gulf Coast Chapter.

In Canada, you may contact the CPR Instructor’s Network to organize a course for your family, workplace, or community organization: info@cprnetwork.ca   Jonathan Halpert is still an active instructor with this organization.