William Lytton of Scarsdale, New York was swimming laps 30 yards offshore of Longnook Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, adjacent to Truro, Mass., when a great white shark bit him.
Its teeth punctured his left leg, just below the hip. He was able to yell “Shark!” and “Help me!” to get the attention of those on the shore. A few men were able to pull him from the water.
But the rescuers were not medical personnel, and they weren’t sure what to do next. That’s when Kerstin Peterleitner and Molly Tobin, both CSON ’18, came on scene. Moments before, Peterleitner and Tobin were walking on the beach. Suddenly, they noticed several people, including one of Tobin’s brothers, running towards them.
“We get to the beach, and my brother said he heard there was a shark attack,” Tobin said. “And [Peterleitner] and I were like, alright, let’s go see what we can do.”
As they ran across the beach, they saw a man lying in the sand near where the waves were breaking. At first, Peterleitner and Tobin were confused—this man couldn’t be the victim because nobody was around him. But when they got closer, they saw the bite.
“We were like, ‘Oh my god, this must be him,’” Tobin said.
The puncture wound to his left leg had left Lytton bleeding badly. The bite was too high to put a tourniquet around, so Peterletiner and Tobin grabbed as many towels as they could find from people close by, attempting to try and pack the wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
“My first thought was ‘Oh my god, I feel like this guy might die,’ because I had never seen a wound that big,” Tobin said. “But my second thought, which I said to a lot of people, ‘Wow, I feel like I chose the right career’ because I was like, alright, let’s try to do something so he doesn’t die.”
Assessing the situation, Peterleitner’s thoughts quickly jumped to one of the most important lessons she’d learned while a nursing student at BC.
“It was definitely scary,” added Peterleitner. “But the first thing they teach you in nursing school is to assess the patient and stop the bleeding. Obviously we’re on a beach, so we don’t have the usual resources, but the first thing was just stop the bleeding, see if the guy is conscious, see if he is still breathing. The training we have been doing for four years kicked into high gear.”
When they first found the victim, Peterleitner and Tobin were confused.
“What happened is [Lytton] was laying on the beach, and there were these other guys sitting there, and they said, ‘Oh yeah that’s the guy who was bitten by a shark.’ My friend and I were like, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything?’” said Tobin.
They later learned those men had been the ones to pull him from the water.
“I couldn’t tell if this guy had gotten himself to shore,” Tobin said. “But the guys who pulled him out didn’t know what to do, so they sort of just laid him on the shore.”
Lytton was in shock, but conscious and able to give his name. Somebody ran to find his family further down the beach. People on the beach were happy to give the nurses towels so they could try to stem the bleeding. Luckily, there were other medical personnel who happened to be spending the day at Longnook Beach who were able to lend a hand as well.
“Being at BC they taught us that you’re not just treating an injury or an illness, you’re treating a patient, and what I tried to do as I was taking a care of him was talk to the victim, try to make sure he wasn’t so scared,” Tobin said.
Longnook Beach is isolated, bordered by large dunes. There is no cell service. Somebody raced up the dunes to use a house landline to call 911. By chance, other medical personnel, including a pediatrician and an OBGYN surgeon, were on the beach. They, along with Peterleitner and Tobin, decided the man had to be moved to the base of the dunes so the EMTs would not have to run across the beach.
“Somebody got a towel, and we were able to roll him on and start carrying him to the dunes,” Peterleitner said. “It was really awesome because so many people were willing to help, people were running alongside us, saying, ‘Do you need a break? Let us know—we’ll jump in and help carry.”
The EMTs then arrived, taking Lytton to Wellfleet, where he was airlifted to Tufts Medical Center. According to a spokeswoman, he remains in fair condition as of Saturday. Longnook Beach was closed indefinitely Friday night, as more sharks have been spotted swimming in the water.
News reports of the attack have stated that the victim was bitten in his torso as well as his leg. Tobin says that’s not true.
“It was his leg, and there was a bite on his hand,” she said. “If this guy was bit in his torso, he would have bled out immediately.”
As she reflected on her reaction, Peterleitner credited her past four years in the nursing school, especially BC’s Simulations (Sims) Lab. Tobin also echoed that sentiment: The Sims Lab contains mannequins that mimic trauma, including the disaster sim, which allows students to practice triage and treating patients who have lost a limb.
“This was a total freak thing, and we just happened to be there,” Peterleitner said. “You never know when you will be in a situation like this, and I think BC with the sims and just talking about it in class has really helped to get me in that mindset of staying calm and focusing on what I’ve learned in school, and be able to apply that.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Molly Tobin