BOSTON – The man bitten by a shark off Cape Cod this month said he escaped by punching the powerful predator in the gills.
In his first interview since the Aug. 15 attack , William Lytton told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he’d been swimming a few yards from shore when the shark clamped down on his leg.
“I was terrified, but, really, there was no time to think,” he said, recounting the ordeal following a physical therapy session at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, where he’s been since Sunday.
The 61-year-old neurologist from Scarsdale, New York, said he gave the animal a strong smack in the gills with his left hand, a move that likely saved his life but also resulted in three torn tendons. He now sports an arm cast as well as bandages and a brace around most of his left leg.
Lytton said he must have recalled from nature documentaries that the gills were one of the most vulnerable parts of the shark.
“It doesn’t feel like I did anything heroic,” he said. “A lot of this was luck.”
After the animal broke its grip, he took a few quick stokes back to shore, where he shouted for help. Police have said Lytton was about 30 yards (27 meters) off Long Nook Beach in Truro, Massachusetts, and Lytton estimates he was swimming in about 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) of water.
Beachgoers — including off-duty nurses and other medical professionals — helped stem the bleeding and carried him up the dunes to the beach parking lot. Someone alerted his wife, who had been on the beach with their two young daughters and family friends, he recalled.
Lytton was airlifted to Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he was sedated and placed on a ventilator for two days. Over eight surgeries, Lytton was given nearly 12 pints (6 liters) of blood and hundreds of sutures were used to stitch back together muscles and skin.
“These were extensive, very severe injuries,” said Eric Mahoney, a trauma surgeon who performed many of the operations. “He had multiple lacerations from his hip down to just above his knee that went 75 percent around his leg. In two areas they went all the way down to the bone.”
The shark, fortunately, missed critical nerves and veins and didn’t leave major bone damage, Mahoney said. Two presumed shark teeth fragments measuring about a centimeter each were recovered and are being sent to shark researchers for examination, he said.
Lytton said he’s grateful to be alive, but knows he has weeks more of rehab — and at least one more surgery — before he’s back on his feet.
The professor at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn is expected to be at Spaulding, where many of the most severely injured survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing were treated, about two weeks before eventually returning to New York for possibly more rehab.
Lytton said he isn’t in any rush to wade back into the ocean waters off Cape Cod, where he spends nearly every summer doing research. Truro, the town where he was attacked, was the site of the state’s last shark attack in 2012; Massachusetts’ last fatal attack was in 1936.
Lytton’s wife, June, said she hopes the attack serves as a warning for others visiting Cape Cod — particularly as the busy Labor Day weekend approaches — to take shark safety seriously.
Shark sightings have continued to close Cape Cod beaches this week; one was even captured on video mere feet from shore.
Lytton admits he didn’t get a good look at his attacker, but the “prime suspect” likely is a great white shark, said Greg Skomal, a shark expert with the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries who hopes to examine Lytton’s injuries soon.
“The most abundant type of sharks out where he was attacked are great whites,” he said Wednesday. “Quite honestly, there are not a lot of options.”