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Shark's Victim, Doctors' Miracle

Medicine: 'Replant' by a 'Valley girl' surgeon and team returned an 8-year-old boy to life after attack off Florida.

July 19, 2001|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PENSACOLA, Fla. — The 8-year-old shark bite victim was rushed from the beach by helicopter drained of blood and so precariously feeble that doctors couldn't even find a pulse. "He was dead, essentially," Dr. Juliet M. De Campos recalls.

An hour later, the boy's right arm, packed in ice, arrived by ambulance after having been pulled from the gullet of the shark that mauled him. And De Campos, a self-labeled "Valley girl" schooled in medicine at USC, began the painstaking work of reattaching it.

For 11 grueling hours, the orthopedic specialist, two other surgeons and a large support team toiled in the emergency room. Twelve days later, Jessie Arbogast, the shark attack victim from Ocean Springs, Miss., is still in a coma but showing signs of improvement by yawning, coughing and moving his head sideways.

"I cry almost every day when I walk out of his room, because something good has happened," said De Campos, 45, a catch of emotion in her voice. "I don't know if he is going to wake up and be a normal kid. I don't know if he is going to be able to use the arm that was replanted. Not because we didn't do it technically right, but because his brain might not develop enough to get either of his arms to work normally.

"But I can tell you that he was dead--no pulse, no blood pressure, with his eyes fixed and dilated. And now he is looking at his mother's face, moving his arms and legs, and he is every day making progress."

The "replant," as the procedure performed on Jessie is known, has catapulted De Campos onto cable television news shows and into the newspapers.

She moved to this city in Florida's Panhandle from Los Angeles 3 1/2 years ago, after concluding she could never get the sort of high-profile Los Angeles job she once craved in the field of sports medicine, with the Dodgers or Lakers for example.

The births of son Kourage, 5, and daughter Diandra, 3, had made her reevaluate her goals. "I looked at my life, and I said, well, I'm probably never going to be the most famous doctor in the world. So what I'd like to be is the best mom I can be."

Because of the one-hour commute each way from her home in Santa Monica to Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles, she remembers, "I never saw my son awake." In this city of 56,000, she said happily, she can drive anywhere in 10 minutes. Her husband, Keith Kundahl, a former financial planner, now runs an Internet fly-fishing business from home.

With two other doctors trained at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, De Campos operates a clinic specializing in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine. "Ninety percent of my practice is shoulders and knees and athletic injuries and runners who have complaints," she said.

Dealing with charley horses, torn knee ligaments and rotator cuff injuries is her usual fare. But the experience in treating broken bones and other limb-threatening injuries that she and her partners got at USC, De Campos said proudly, also make them "the go-to guys for trauma" in this city.

It was De Campos' turn to be on call at Baptist Hospital on July 6. At dusk, Jessie was attacked by a bull shark while wading in knee-deep water at Gulf Islands National Seashore a few miles to the west.

The boy's uncle wrestled the 200-pound predator to shore, a park ranger shot it in the head, and a volunteer firefighter retrieved the boy's severed arm from the shark's maw with a forceps.

It's this display of bravery, teamwork and quick thinking, plus the "noble" courage of Jessie's family, insists De Campos, that's the real news. Since she once worked as a stringer for Associated Press, covering college basketball and beach volleyball, her journalistic opinion is born of some experience. But if Jessie's story is ever made into a movie, she adds with a laugh, she wants to be played by Sharon Stone.

To reattach the arm, which had been severed between shoulder and elbow, De Campos shortened the humerus bone on both ends to ensure a tighter fit. She affixed a stainless-steel plate with screws to hold the bone together. Other doctors restitched the muscle ends, nerves and blood vessels.

De Campos then directed her attention to Jessie's right leg, where another bite from the shark had torn away two-thirds of the thigh. She sewed up the knee joint so it was not exposed to air.

The boy was moved to another Pensacola hospital, Sacred Heart Children's, when he suffered kidney failure. On Wednesday, he was listed in critical but stable condition, in a light coma but showing signs of neurological improvement, hospital spokesman Clay DeStefano said.

The previous evening, Jessie underwent a procedure to prepare his leg for a skin graft, which had been scheduled for Monday but was postponed because he was bleeding internally. The hemorrhaging has stopped, DeStefano said.

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