March 30, 2023

‘I started beating the shark’: Pernambuco survivors recall attacks, amputations and a new beginning

Charles Heitor, 46, Thiago Augusto, 37, and Pablo Diego, 39, share a trauma that is hard to overcome: the three survived attacks by sharks on its shore Pernambuco. In addition to the physical and psychological consequences, difficulties in obtaining quality intentions and entering the labor market are part of the daily life of the victims. In the last 20 days, The story repeated itself for three people, two of whom were 14-year-old teenagers.

Charles Heitor Barbosa Pires was surfing with friends on May 1, 1999, a cloudy Saturday, at Boa Viagem Beach, Recife, when he was attacked by a shark. He was sitting on the board when he felt something big approaching – he wanted to go back to the sand, but there was no time. “The shark grabbed my leg, took me to the bottom and started tossing me from side to side,” he recalled. When he tried to react, he was bitten on both hands. “I already knew my condition was serious because he took off immediately,” he says, who was rescued by lifeguards after swallowing a lot of water.

Five days after the case, surfing was banned in the capital and in Jaboatão dos Guararapes, Olinda, Paulista and Cabo de Santo Agostinho. At the same time, signs warning of the risk of shark attacks, now commonplace for people walking along the beaches, began to be put up.

Rescued at the Hospital da Restauração (HR), a reference to emergency care, Pires had to have both arms amputated – it was the start of a painful recovery. With weekly dressing changes and frequent pain, she went through a period of denial. “I couldn’t believe it, it was a nightmare for me. I thought, ‘Why me?'”

In 2012, 13 years after the accident, the former surfer won an unprecedented court case and received bionic prostheses imported from Scotland, which were funded by the government of Pernambuco. Valued at R$654,000 at the time, they allowed Pires to return to basic finger movements such as holding objects. “I started studying law and with the help of a professor I filed a lawsuit. I had no help, no support from the state, nor from Cemit, which is the Shark Incident Monitoring Committee, here in Recife,” he said.

Last year he returned to fight in court for a new prosthesis. As of 2014, the warranty on your bionic arm has expired. “The prostheses provided by the SUS (Unified Health System) no longer fit me. So I went to court just to get a quality prosthetic,” she explains. He founded the Association of Victims of Shark Attacks (Avituba), in which he helps survivors search for intentions.

Currently, the former surfer’s main source of income is support from the National Institute of Social Security (INSS) in the amount of a minimum wage. Pires, facing financial difficulties, is considering going back to school, this time in another district. She wants to study Psychology.

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Charles Heitor Barbosa Pires was surfing with friends on May 1, 1999, a cloudy Saturday, at Boa Viagem Beach, Recife, when he was attacked by a shark. Photo: Leo Caldas/Estadão

While practicing bodyboarding with friends at Pau Amarelo Beach, in the Paulista Municipality of the Recife Metropolitan Region, Thiago Augusto da Silva Machado was bitten on his left leg by a Tiger Shark, known for aggressive attacks on the State’s beaches, in April 2003 .As he was about 800 meters from the area, he had to wait for a “katraia”, a type of small boat, to pass by to call for help.

Taken to the Hospital da Restauração, Machado, who was just 17 at the time, had to have his leg amputated, which was torn. In the first days he had difficulty accepting himself, but, through physical therapy, he began to adapt to the new reality. “I even went through psychologists, but I didn’t need many sessions. I adapted very quickly to life with intentions,” he says.

Shortly after discharge, he was given a prosthesis by the Association for Aid to Children with Disabilities (SAAD). It took two years to adjust to the equipment. “I didn’t get any help from the government and nobody came to me,” he said. “The government should help the victims and it’s not doing it.”

Today, at the age of 37, he works in software development at a technology company. Despite the trauma 20 years ago, he says he is happy. “Today I’m calm, I’ve got my stuff, I’ve got my car, my house,” said Machado, who is getting the prosthetic replacements done while still at AACD.

Five years in search of a new beginning

Next month, on April 15, it will be five years since the shark attack suffered by Pablo Diego Inácio de Melo at Piedade Beach, Jaboatão dos Guararapes. His leg and arm were amputated, both on the right. With the tendons torn, the left arm was also affected.

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It wasn’t until 2021, three years after the attack, that a municipal decree was issued banning sea bathing in the area of ​​Igrejinha de Piedade, as the place is known. On this occasion two more attacks were made. One of the victims died.

The incident with Melo happened while the boy was taking a shower after playing ball with some friends on the beach. The tide was high and the weather rainy. Entering the sea, it was not so deep, just enough to remove the sand from the body. In waist-deep water, he was surprised by a Tiger Shark. He was bitten on the right leg and tried to defend himself with both hands, which ended up getting hit too. “I started hitting him to free my leg, I don’t know if it was in the eye or the nose. When he felt it, he let go of my hand,” he recalls.

The potiguar was taken to the Hospital da Restauração, where he stayed for about a month. During this time, he underwent six surgeries. In serious condition, he needed the help of a breathing apparatus for the first few days. “I thought I wouldn’t survive what I went through, the pain I felt, the blood I lost.”

After the accident, the marriage ended and he decided to return to Rio Grande do Norte. “My ex-wife left me,” he says. She has six daughters, aged between 11 and 17, but none of them live with her father.

A few months after the incident, Melo was presented with a transfemoral prosthesis – used in above-the-knee amputations – by Dr. Thiago Bessa, of Clínica Boa Viagem, in Recife, who heard about the case through a television report and was moved. The donation was made through the Instituto de Medicina Integral Professor Fernando Figueira (IMIP) and physiotherapy is provided free of charge at the clinic. But between the comings and goings from Rio Grande do Norte to Recife, the bill ends up being expensive with transportation and accommodation costs. “When I go to Recife, I face terrible problems because I have no family,” he says, who will undergo two additional surgeries in the coming days.

Among so many financial and health problems, Melo also went through depression in the first months of the adjustment. “I was a little sad, I’m not going to lie. I kept thinking: what will my life be like from now on?”, he said.

Melo has returned to work as a street vendor and receives BPC/LOAS – a social welfare allowance paid by the INSS – but his income is still very low. He explains that he feels pain and the compound medicine costs about R$600. To survive, he has sought help from friends and strangers in urban collectives. “There are good-hearted people who really help and know that my story is true, there is no way to tell that it is a lie.”

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Hospital da Restauração reported that it refers patients to outpatient follow-up when indicated by the discharge team. In the case of physical therapy, the treatment to which the patient will be subjected, as well as the duration, are defined according to the type of injury presented.

Trying to comment on the aid policies for the victims of attacks, the government of Pernambuco has not yet appeared.

After three new shark attacks in 15 days, on the Great Barrier Reef. one in Olinda and two in Jaboatão dos Guararapes, Piedade Beach, the state government announced the resumption of research with the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) and the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE), which had been suspended since 2015. The State Commission for The monitoring of shark incidents (Cemit) will also undergo changes and will be transferred to the Secretariat for the Environment, Sustainability and Fernando de Noronha.

According to the president of Cemit between 2012 and 2014 and professor of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture at UFRPE, Rosângela Lessa, there is already knowledge acquired over decades on this issue and actions that have been able to reduce the number of incidents since 1992 until 2014. “I believe that this knowledge should be the basis for the actions to be taken now. There is a need for new knowledge, but what is already known cannot be ignored,” he says.

Despite the new cases, researchers do not believe in an increase in shark abundance in the areas of the attacks. “We believe that what caused the incident is the increased use of the beach by humans and a series of environmental features that have always been present,” explains Rosângela, who draws attention to the change in the way the environment is used due to climate change. “It is known to have significant consequences for fish and especially for sharks,” he says.

Currently, statewide, there have been 77 reported shark incidents since 1992, when official records began. A total of 26 victims died and 51 survived.

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