MISSISSIPPI children welcome home 8-year-old shark attack survivor

Monday, August 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ Jessie Arbogast, the 8-year-old boy mauled by a shark last month, has returned home _ but only time will tell how extensive his brain injury has become.

Children laughed and cried with joy Sunday in Ocean Springs, Miss., as an ambulance containing the boy _ still in a light coma _ arrived at the family home after a two-hour drive from Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Pensacola.

``Although he's not fully recovered, I feel that it's nothing short of a miracle that he has come this far and been able to actually survive,'' said Dr. Tim Livingston, a pediatric neurologist at Sacred Heart.

The boy's right arm was ripped off by a 6 1/2-foot long bull shark in the waters off Langdon Beach in the Gulf Islands National Seashore on July 6. The shark also tore a large chunk of muscle from his right thigh.

``It appears he has suffered some brain injury because of the massive blood loss incurred during the shark attack,'' Livingston said. ``There is certainly potential for further recovery, but we just don't know how long that may take or how far he can progress. It may be a year before we know.''

Only Jessie's pale face was visible beneath a blue plastic tarp that shielded him from rain as ambulance personnel took him through his front door. Signs saying ``Welcome Home Jessie'' and yellow ribbons heralded his return.

Jessie has made dramatic recovery from the shark bites and no longer needs medication, including for pain, although he still must be fed through a tube, said Dr. Rob Patterson, a pediatric intensive care specialist. The boy's kidneys have since improved and he no longer needs dialysis.

Doctors believe being at home may help his recovery.

``What Jessie responds to the most is own family and the people he seems to recognize,'' Patterson said.

Patterson said Jessie responds by opening his eyes and appearing to gain a higher level of alertness, but he added ``there's no purposeful communication.''

Last year, there were 79 shark attacks worldwide, 51 of them in the United States and 34 in Florida. Earlier this month, a New York man celebrating his wedding anniversary in the Bahamas had part of his left leg amputated after being attacked by a shark.

The Arbogast family issued a statement thanking people in Pensacola and around the world for their support and prayers and especially thanking the crew of the Baptist Flight helicopter that came to Jessie's aid on the beach ``for making the hard choice.''

To save two crucial minutes of flying time, the crew took Jessie to Baptist Hospital, where he was revived and his arm reattached, instead of Sacred Heart, which has a pediatric intensive care unit. Jessie was transferred two days later. Some have criticized the crew for not taking him to Sacred Heart.

``We also wish to thank the many people at the beach whose quick thinking and actions helped to save Jessie,'' the family said in its statement. ``There are no words or ways to express our thanks to the doctors, nurses and staff at both Baptist Hospital and Sacred Heart Children's Hospital, except to say we are eternally grateful.''

Family members have declined interview requests and in the statement urged the news media to respect their privacy.