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Teenage Shark Attack Survivor Loses Leg, Not Spirit

Jul 22, 2022 |

The circumstances surrounding an amputation are never easy. But it’s hard to imagine a more traumatic experience than losing a limb due to a shark attack.

That’s exactly what happened to 17-year-old Addison Bethea. On June 30, Addison was looking for scallops off the coast of Keaton Beach, Florida when a nine-foot shark latched onto her right thigh. Screaming for help, she punched and poked at the shark but was unable to get free.

“I knew that with sharks you’re supposed to punch them in the nose to get them off of you,” she told CNN from her hospital bed. “I couldn’t get around to punch him in the nose. So I just started socking it in the face and then poked its eyes and I tried to latch it off me with my fingers, and then it bit my hand.”

That’s when her brother Rhett Willingham, a firefighter/EMT who was in the water with her that day, heard her screams.

“I sat up and looked and didn’t see her,” Rhett told CNN from his sister’s bedside. “Then she came up from the water and I saw the shark and the blood and all that, then I swam over there and got (the shark) off.”

Once he fought off the shark, Rhett pulled Addison onto a stranger’s passing boat and applied a tourniquet to minimize blood loss. They made it back to land and Addison was airlifted 80 miles away to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital (TMH) for emergency trauma surgery.

According to a statement from TMH, Addison “suffered devastating injury to her upper right leg, including the loss of her quadriceps, the four muscles in the front of the thigh. The bite also caused massive nerve and vascular damage.”

At the hospital, she underwent several surgeries in an attempt to save her leg. In the end, however, doctors had no choice but to perform an above-knee amputation.

Only days later, the resilient teenager was out of bed and taking her first steps with the help of a walker and then crutches.

“Our girl took her first steps today and managed to make it all the way down the hallway!” her family wrote on Facebook. And her father said Addison remains her usual upbeat self, surrounded by stuffed toy sharks, asking for a Wendy’s frosty and “cracking jokes about beating up the shark.”

Though she is aware of the long road of recovery in front of her, Addison is already eager to get back in the ocean.

“Once my leg is healed, I am going back in the water,” she said. “Even though so much may be unknown you have to just fight through the unexpected.”

The shark may have taken her leg, but it didn’t make a dent in her spirit!