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Mass. responders deal with stress of fatal shark attack

As they consider the second shark bite this summer and the first fatal shark attack in the state in over 80 years, responders say they are monitoring mental health

By Mary Ann Bragg
Cape Cod Times

WELLFLEET, Mass. — After a great white shark killed 26-year-old Arthur Medici Saturday at Newcomb Hollow Beach, EMTs and paramedics from the Wellfleet Fire Department who cared him were promptly sent home, and their shifts filled by others.

“I had to make decisions right away about sending people home,” Wellfleet Fire Chief Richard Pauley said about standard go-home emergency response practices for “high stress, high profile” rescues.

As they consider the second great white shark bite this summer along the Cape’s Atlantic coast and the first fatal shark attack in the state in more than 80 years, fire and police chiefs say they are continuing their standard procedures, including for mental health monitoring. But they are expanding their training and considering options such as improved radio communications in the remote Atlantic coast dunes where radios can fail.

Shortly after 12:10 p.m., a dozen EMTs, paramedics, police and Cape Cod National Seashore rangers responded to the shark attack at Newcomb Hollow Beach where Medici was boogie-boarding with his girlfriend’s brother. At least three off-duty Wellfleet lifeguards ran to help the injured man. So did several beachgoers, who tried to stem the flow of blood with a leash from the board, a dog’s leash and towels. The man’s legs were bitten, witnesses said.

At Cape Cod Hospital, where Medici, 26, of Revere, was pronounced dead, there was a short debriefing of the emergency rescuers, Pauley said. A group meeting was held Sunday, with medical staff, police, off-duty lifeguards, emergency dispatchers and others, Pauley and Wellfleet Police Chief Ronald Fisette said. The emergency responders have opportunities to speak with counselors, Fisette said.

Pauley, who is out-of-state on vacation, said he is in touch with his staff with many phone calls and through observations by trusted individuals.

“We all know each other pretty well,” he said.

In the last 10 years or so, there is a new emphasis on recognizing the mental health aspects of emergency response, Fisette said.

“These things have a weight,” and can be cumulative, he said. “You try to go to sleep at night, you’re running over the scene in your head.”

Within the Cape Cod National Seashore, too, there are protocols to help rangers manage stress from difficult incidents, said Seashore Acting Deputy Chief Ranger Chris Hartsgrove. Critical stress management teams are in place across the National Park Service, and at least one person is trained on the Seashore staff to respond as well, Hartsgrove said.

“You want to make sure to be in constant communication,” Hartsgrove said.

Response to shark attacks is yet another aspect of the work done by fire departments in the region, which have seen their roles expand to include hazardous materials, terrorism and other responsibilities, said Truro Fire Chief Timothy Collins. Dog bites or other animal bites to humans can be substantial but not at the level of a shark bite, he said.

“All you can do is train and prepare,” said Collins, who was on the call for the Aug. 15 rescue at Long Nook Beach in Truro when William Lytton was bitten by a white shark. Lytton survived.

“You train to provide a service,” Collins said. “I don’t have any specific shark attack training. We did bring the Stop the Bleed program in, and we’re looking to expand that.”

Stop the Bleed is a national program meant to “encourage bystanders to become trained, equipped, and empowered to help in a bleeding emergency before professional help arrives,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Over the past 50 to 100 years, the increased access to emergency response has been key to lowering death rates from shark bites worldwide, said Christopher Lowe, a California State University Long Beach professor and municipal adviser to the city of Santa Barbara. Still, a bite that severs a major artery in the leg would leave the injured person with about two minutes to get help, said Lowe, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, fishing and diving around Cape Cod when he was young, according to an online biography.

“In most cases the No. 1 key is stopping that blood loss,” he said.

Stopping blood loss can occur with better trained lifeguards and harbor patrols, use of a surfboard leash as a tourniquet and “trauma kits” that surfers can carry, Lowe said.

While fatal shark bites occurred off Santa Barbara a few years ago, two women were bitten in the past two years off Orange County, and neither were fatal, Lowe said.

“There were people right there to help them,” he said.

A heightened level of public understanding is needed as well, said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. Naylor wants beachgoers to respond to shark warning signs as they do now with rip tides.

“Everybody heeds that warning,” Naylor said. “I think we need to move into that kind of space.”

Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries shark researcher Gregory Skomal said he believes the bite that killed Medici was a great white shark “based on the abundance of these sharks in the area, the fact that they are hunting an abundant food source (seals) close to shore in this area, and the lack of other potentially dangerous species in this area.”

Because the shark bite occurred on Seashore property south of the town beach, Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom and staff members have opened an inquiry into the incident, as Carlstrom said would occur with any fatality or serious injury. In response to Saturday’s fatal shark bite, Seashore and municipal staff members are meeting this week and planning a public meeting as well.

“Everybody wants action,” Carlstrom said.

Copyright 2018 Cape Cod Times