Family rebuilds life after shark attack

September 25, 2011 

Editor's Note: This Associated Press story first ran in 2009.

OCEAN SPRINGS — Jessie Arbogast has come a long way in the eight years since a shark attack in Florida left him bedridden with a feeding tube.

He is now 16 with a mustache and lively blue eyes. He sits up in his wheelchair and participates in his life. And for the most part, he’s happy.

His body still has bite marks — imprints of the shark’s teeth. A huge portion of his right thigh is missing, his right arm has scars between his elbow and shoulder where it was reattached and he has brain damage caused from major blood loss, but he’s interested in what’s going on around him, and he comes off as lively and robust, though unable to speak.

“He takes it all in,” said his mother, Claire Arbogast, who is his constant companion during the day. “Our biggest challenge now is how to help him get it out.”

And by that, she means express himself.

He communicates with his eyes. He holds his own head up and moves his arms at will while sitting in his wheelchair. Occasionally he shouts, “Yeah,” when he thoroughly agrees with what’s being said. He has trouble regulating his responses, especially if he gets excited about the discussion going on around him.

But he communicates easily with those who know how to read his face, and even in limited ways with people he has just met.

“And there’s times, when he’s quiet, that he’ll reach out and hold your hand or give you a hug,” she said.

There are times when he works hard and concentrates to try and get his hands to do what he wants them to.

He and his father, David Arbogast, share interests in boat shows, cars and fast planes. Jessie is in his second year of high school, going almost a full day in special education classes with his mother by his side. He likes school. He’s sociable. He likes blondes on TV and superheroes such as X Men and Spiderman. He likes pirates and the Blue Angels.

Claire sat on a couch next to Jessie in his wheelchair last week and talked about what it has been like for him and the family since the July 6 shark attack in 2001 that thrust them into the national spotlight for weeks.

They have been private in the years since and have dealt with Jessie’s disabilities as a family, with a lot of personal exertion and the help of extended family. But Claire said she thinks it’s time to let the world see Jessie.

She has been hesitant to grant interviews in the past, even though she gets requests each year around the anniversary of the attack. The national and world focus on the event was so intense in the weeks afterwards that she was afraid to stir it up again.

“But we do want people to know how he’s doing,” she said, “because people have been wonderful. He got mail by the droves. We would get mail addressed to ‘The Mississippi boy who got bit by a shark’ and the post office knew where to deliver it.

“I don’t think it was just curiosity; I think they cared,” she said.

She said she doesn’t think Jessie remembers any of the attack. He watches sharks on television without a reaction. But his brother, who is only a year older and was in the water near him when the bull shark hit, remembers it all.

The incident changed all their lives.

The story was so compelling – how his uncle grabbed the 7-foot bull shark by the tail and pulled it ashore, how Jessie’s arm was fished from the shark’s mouth and later reattached, how his aunt applied CPR keeping him alive until they could reach the hospital after so much blood had poured from his leg wound.

The story stayed in the news and in the minds of Americans for all of July and most of August that year, until 9-11.

As Jessie’s story faded from the limelight, his family waited for him to complete weeks and weeks of hospitalization, his parents usually at the hospital and his two brothers and sister at home. Then in December 2001, they quietly took him home, and he began a long, slow recovery.

It was Fourth of July weekend in the summer after second grade for Jessie, who was 8, when he and a brother and sister, Vincent and Mattie, were on vacation with their aunt and uncle, Diana and Vance Flosenzier, and Vance’s two children, a son and daughter.

Four of the children were in the water, fairly close to shore on the west end of Santa Rosa Island, which is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. One child was on shore.

The two girls were in inner tubes farther out than Jessie and his brother. The two boys were standing in about 2 1/2 feet of water, explained Diana Flosenzier in a telephone interview from Hattiesburg.

“When it attacked Jessie, we ran into the water and converged on him,” she said. “Vance grabbed the shark.”

A guy walking on the beach ran in and helped Diana pull Jessie to shore.

“Vance pulled the shark onto land,” she said. “He couldn’t let go. His daughter and Jessie’s sister were still in the water. He knew he couldn’t let the shark go. There were other kids still in danger.”

Jessie’s brother remembers going from person to person on the beach asking them to call for help and getting only a stunned reaction, his mother Claire said. He was so frustrated.

Mattie doesn’t talk about it, she said. But she has written about it. Vincent was more verbal.

“They worked through it in their own, very different ways,” Claire said. “I’m proud of them.”

Still working through it herself, Claire said she’s more likely to talk about what’s going on. Her husband David, who quit work and stayed with Jessie for the difficult first three years when he still had a feeding tube, is more reserved.

Jessie had almost completely bled out when he arrived at the hospital via helicopter. His heart had stopped.

“Then suddenly a heart beat came,” Claire said, remembering what she was told. “And they started doing everything they could. He had 30 units of blood.”

His arm arrived at the hospital later. The shark had been killed and his small arm pulled from its mouth.

Diana Flosenzier said reattaching the arm was something the doctors could do, so they did it. There wasn’t any second-guessing, she said. At the time they didn’t know how much the blood loss had affected Jessie’s brain.

In recovery at the hospital, he was heavily sedated, then he went through a period where his organs shut down, Diana said, “it was touch and go for about a month.”

She said that during that time, the doctors and hospital took the brunt of the media attention, which worked out best for everyone.

Claire believes the shark first bit Jessie’s leg. The wound goes completely to the bone. Then perhaps Jessie tried to push it off of his leg and it took his arm, she said.

Sometimes it seems like it happened just yesterday, “I don’t get mad or blame,” she said. “My thing was to deal with things as they come up.”

She and David are fiercely independent, she said, and believe that bringing Jessie home where he could heal surrounded by a loving family has been best for him.

The alternative might have been shopping the best hospitals for new techniques, but she said, “anoxic brain injury from blood loss, they don’t have much material on that because most don’t survive,” so in ways, they’re breaking new ground.

She said it’s amazing how much Jessie has progressed. The doctors have been cautious about predicting how much he would recover, she said, and that has been a blessing, because they haven’t placed limits on him. He was so young when it happened.

At first, he had home health nurses, his condition was critical, she said, and he was not aware of what was going on.

“Through his determination and his dad’s determination, he has grown,” she said.

That same determination makes him hard to deal with at times.

If he doesn’t want to do something, he fights it, she said.

Like shaving. He wants a beard, so shaving him can be like wrestling an octopus. So he gets a beard sometimes, and he keeps a mustache.

He wakes up each morning with a smile, unless he’s sick, which is rare, she said.

“It’s got to be frustrating, but we seldom see anger or crying from him.

“He’s really easy-going, but he will let you know if he doesn’t like something,” she said. “He’s very tactile, strong on his left side and he would love to say something.”

During the interview, when Claire said that Jessie and Vincent pick on each other like typical brothers, Jessie moved his arms at a faster pace and shouted “Yeah.”

He has a way of getting his feelings out, she said. And he doesn’t miss a joke or a chance to laugh.

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