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Shark attack survivor reflects on anniversary

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Craig and his brother, Brian, now principal at Coles Ferry Elementary, on June 26, 2005 - the day before the shark attack. Submitted
These days Craig Hutto, pictured with his nieces Neleigh and Andie, lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a nurse practitioner at Oregon Health and Science University. Submitted

"It was June 27, 2005," a now nearly 28-year-old Craig Hutto remembered. It was a day that would change his outlook - and his life.

Craig, a 16-year-old Lebanon High School athlete at the time, was enjoying a beach vacation in Cape San Blas, Fla. with his parents Lou Ann and Roger Hutto, eldest brother, Brian, and sister-in-law, Megan.

There weren't a lot of activities going on in the area - just families, like the Huttos, enjoying sun, white sand beaches and quiet relaxation. Brian and Craig decided it would be a great time to go fishing.

After a quick stop at a local bait shop for fishing poles and licenses, the brothers, separated by 9 years, took to the ocean.

"We didn't see many people out on the beach that morning," Craig said. "We walked out to the sandbar, about 30 yards out."

Craig said they were having a good morning - mixed with some friendly competition.

"Brian got a pretty big fish and of course, I thought I could do better," he explained. They ventured out to another sandbar - about 5-feet in depth. The water was murky there.

"Something soft-punched me on my side," Craig said, noting that he was completely unaware at that moment that he was sharing space with a bull shark.

It wasn't until the shark took hold of his right leg and pulled him under the water that he panicked.

"I didn't feel pain. It was a really numbing, shaking pressure," he said. "I was only underwater a minute or two and I kept thinking, 'This is a dream. You need to wake up right now.'"

However, it wasn't a dream. Brian, who had been standing to his right, saw the dorsal fin and swam over to Craig.

He put his arm around his brother and began trying to drag him back to shore - the shark still attached.

"The shark wasn't fighting against us, but it was biting and riding with us back to shore," Craig said. "I'm freaking out."

In an almost instinctual way - Craig reached his hands into the water to unclasp the shark from his leg.

"I was just thinking of freeing my leg," he said. When he brought his hands out of the water, they had been ripped to shreds by the shark's sharp teeth.

"I saw the tendons but I didn't see blood," Craig commented. "Later I found out that it had bitten into my femoral artery and I was pumping blood into the water."

Craig's father and another gentleman ran into the water to assist. The shark was still latching onto his leg. Brian began to punch it in the nose until it released.

"During this time people began to accumulate on the beach. There were three nurses on vacation and they ran over and began putting pressure on my leg," Craig said.

An ambulance with paramedics was the first on the scene until a life-flight helicopter could arrive and transport Craig to Panama City's Bay Medical Center. The hospital was almost an hour drive away - so paramedics advised his parents to get a head start while they waited for the helicopter to arrive.

"I asked the flight nurse if it was okay if I went to sleep," he remembered, not waking up until the next morning.

Because of blood loss and tissue damage, the doctors decided to amputate his leg above the knee.

"I woke up knowing that they were likely going to amputate my leg, but it was hard accepting the fact that I may never play sports again," Craig said of his reaction. "I wondered if girls were going to date me. I was 16."

It wasn't until Brian had a heart-to-heart conversation with him, that his outlook began to change.

"He told me the worst is over and to basically quit being a baby," he said. "That changed my perspective."

Craig endured seven surgeries to his hands and leg in 2 ½ weeks.

His hands would have to heal over the span of five months before he could even be fitted for a prosthetic leg.

"My mom and dad had to help me do everything. I had hand therapy three to four times a week, but I ended up regaining 90 percent of hand function," he said.

After receiving his prosthetic leg, Craig began walking with crutches - which was quickly weaned away.

"I started working with a research group at Vanderbilt University under Dr. Michael Goldfarb, who was studying and experimenting on newer types of prosthetic legs which implemented motors at the knee and ankle to improve the gait functionality and safety of transfemoral amputees," he said. "I participated in their research trials for around eight years."

After graduation from LHS in 2007 Craig continued his education with a Nursing Degree from Middle Tennessee State University and his Masters from Vanderbilt University.

Craig once hoped to pursue a career in computer science - but after the shark attack vowed to give back to others through a career in medicine.

"I really saw the importance of healthcare and I felt like I should give back," Craig, now an acute care nurse practitioner, said.

Craig is currently employed in the neurosurgical ICU at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

The Neuro ICU team provides direct medical care to patients admitted to the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit. Craig works in partnership with faculty physicians, fellows and residents to develop and implement clinical plans of care and protocols for patients with neurological injures.

He said the patient population at OSHU includes include brain tumors, intracranial hemorrhages, spinal dysfunctions, strokes and seizures.

Craig visited the beach in the Pacific Northwest a couple of years ago. He said that his family, friends and especially, his faith, helped him make it through his life's most difficult challenge.

"For me, I'm not afraid to get back in the ocean. I still go to the beach. There are just certain conditions I now look for and avoid such as murky water, overcast conditions and schools of fish swimming around...I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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