‘Blood was ev­ery­where’

A shark takes a big bite out of Mitch Mi­lan’s surf­board and punc­tures his hand, but the Kauai surfer still feels “blessed.”

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Leila Fu­ji­mori lfu­ji­mori@starad­ver­tiser.com

Call it joy.

That’s left-han­der Mitch Mi­lan’s out­look, even af­ter suf­fer­ing a shark bite that deeply punc­tured his left hand, sev­ered the tip of his ring fin­ger and chomped a 14-inch piece out of his surf­board Mon­day at David­son’s Beach in Kekaha on Kauai’s west side. Call It Joy is also the name of the 54-year-old car­pen­ter’s band, in which he plays ukulele, an in­stru­ment that “makes ev­ery­thing light, no mat­ter what we play,” he said. “Two weeks and I should be back to play­ing my ukulele.” Mi­lan’s ge­nial voice re­flected his pos­i­tive na­ture dur­ing a phone in­ter­view Wed­nes­day from his Waimea home. He said doc­tors call him lucky and say he’s heal­ing well.

“I like the word ‘blessed’,” he said. “Some­body was look­ing out for me.”

Mi­lan and fel­low car­pen­ter and surf­ing buddy Gary Watkins hit the 6- to 8-foot-face waves af­ter work at David­son’s, where six months ago a French visi­tor was bit­ten by a shark.

But af­ter surf­ing 30 to 45 min­utes, it was get­ting a lit­tle too dark.

“It was time to come in and (I was) just wait­ing on a big wave,” he said. “Shark hit. Took me out from the left side, ba­si­cally blew me off the board. Ap­par­ently it hit my hand.”

Mi­lan, a surfer for 40 years, moved to Kauai from Cal­i­for­nia in 2004, in part, iron­i­cally, to es­cape

sharks. He had surfed Santa Cruz since he was a kid and some of his friends had been badly bit­ten.

“The minute it hap­pened, it was very sur­re­al­is­tic,” he said. “In my head, I’ve been think­ing about it for 40 years … think­ing about the ‘Jaws’ song.”

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound surfer said he didn’t see the tiger shark com­ing and felt as though he’d been hit by a line­backer. He was thrown up into the air, and it took a few sec­onds for his brain to catch up and to re­al­ize he’d been bit­ten, he said.

He said he saw the shark pull his board un­der­wa­ter, and Mi­lan pulled back. “I don’t know if it was the smartest thing to do,” he said. “The shark just went down. I was just pray­ing for my life be­cause you can’t see this thing. I saw swirls in the water.”

Watkins, 25 feet away, pad­dled quickly to him, heard the board be­ing crunched between the big fish’s jaws, but at that point didn’t know his friend was bit­ten and bleed­ing badly. “He just said, ‘We gotta go in. We gotta go in,’” Mi­lan re­lated.

Mi­lan caught a wave that broke within sec­onds, un­aware that Watkins had missed the wave and was left be­hind with the shark still in sight.

“Gary went nose to nose with it,” he said. “It was act­ing ex­tremely er­ratic. He was see­ing the fin. He (was) look­ing right at it, keep­ing his board between him and it.” Watkins caught the next wave in.

Watkins wrapped Mi­lan’s hand with some clean rags, told him to press down, and drove him to West Kauai Vet­er­ans Hospi­tal in Waimea.

Mi­lan de­scribed his in­juries as “two huge gouges on top of my hand and one fin­ger.”

“Blood was ev­ery­where. It wasn’t a di­rect hit. If it (had been), I wouldn’t be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion right now. To walk away from it is mirac­u­lous.”

50 stitches later

Mi­lan was treated for the deep wounds to his hand and the tip of his ring fin­ger was sewn back on. “The flap on the back of my hand was peeled over my knuck­les,” he said. “The mir­a­cle is that it didn’t cut a ten­don, didn’t hit an artery or vein, didn’t break a bone.”

Mi­lan re­ceived 50 stitches, a tetanus shot and mor­phine, and his hand was placed in a com­pres­sion splint.

“All I can say is, ‘Praise God,’” he said. “Some­one was re­ally pro­tect­ing us. This just doesn’t hap­pen.” He said when tiger sharks bite they usu­ally don’t let go, and there is of­ten se­vere blood loss. “That’s cur­tains for most peo­ple.”

He re­ferred to the 28-yearold French man bit­ten by a 12-foot tiger shark at David­son’s on April 14. The man suf­fered se­vere in­juries to his lower right leg and was taken to the hospi­tal in crit­i­cal con­di­tion. Ac­cord­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press, a por­tion of his leg was am­pu­tated.

Mi­lan said he didn’t get a good look at the shark, but caught a glimpse of its sil­ver and black stripes. He was told the 14-inch-width of the shark’s bite in his surf­board in­di­cates it was about 14 feet long.

“In the­ory, the length of a tiger shark can be es­ti­mated from a bite im­pres­sion in a surf­board,” said Carl Meyer of the Hawaii In­sti­tute of Marine Bi­ol­ogy. But most bite im­pres­sions are par­tial and the en­tire jaw is not recorded, so “we are cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether par­tial im­pres­sions can be used to ac­cu­rately es­ti­mate shark size.”

Brief warn­ings

A Kauai County spokes­woman said first re­spon­ders were not called af­ter the at­tack. Life­guards posted signs Tues­day morn­ing as a pre­cau­tion but took them down Wed­nes­day morn­ing af­ter no sharks were seen in the area.

The state Depart­ment of Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources was not con­tacted af­ter the at­tack, but of­fi­cials plan to get in touch with the vic­tim, DLNR spokes­woman Deborah Ward said.

Asked whether he was aware that Oc­to­ber is the month with the high­est in­ci­dence of shark at­tacks, he said, “Shark­to­ber? I guess I’m a be­liever at this point.” But he said surf­ing brings him “great joy,” so the knowl­edge wouldn’t have changed his de­ci­sion to go into the water on Mon­day. His wife of 35 years, Sharon, says she’s “just grate­ful that he’s alive. He’s re­ally a blessed in­di­vid­ual.”

She said her hus­band is “very pos­i­tive.” By Tues­day evening he was giv­ing ukulele lessons, us­ing a friend as a hand model to dis­play chords.

His splint was re­moved Wed­nes­day, and he’s wig­gling his still-swollen fin­gers.

Per­haps the take­away could come from the lyrics of his band’s pop­u­lar song, “Life is Jelly”:

“Life is good. Make the most of your sit­u­a­tion.”


Sharon Mi­lan gave hus­band Mitch a kiss af­ter he was treated at West Kauai Vet­er­ans Hospi­tal for a shark bite to his left hand.

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