A 73-year-old scuba diver misplaced her leg to a shark. Now she’s again within the water

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A 73-year-old scuba diver misplaced her leg to a shark. Now she’s again within the water

Shark tattoos adorn every of Heidi Ernst’s calves. You possibly can see them now as she sits at an Iowa clinic, gazing out the window. Round her neck are two silver necklaces: one clasps two dolphins, the opposite a shark. Her blue eyes twinkle just like the ocean. The traces on her face mirror not her 74 years, however the fears she has confronted.

“I’m so excited I can hardly discuss,” she says to her neighbor, who drove her to this crucial medical appointment in mid-September.

Ernst is a bodily therapist, however in the present day she is the affected person. For the primary time in 103 days, she’s going to stand on two legs. One has been designed only for her.


On an early June day in 2023, the Caribbean Sea sparkled round Grand Bahama Island, about 100 miles east of the Florida coast. Sponges, squids and sharks meander the clear waters. Ernst perched in the back of the boat, prepared for the staff’s second dive of the day, this one in “Shark Junction”.

The Grand Bahama Scuba dive staff determined to attend an additional hour earlier than the second dive as a result of a tour operator close by had lured sharks to the floor to let guests hand-feed them.

This luring observe is controversial, and Ernst didn’t approve of it. Human feedings prepare the sharks to return to the floor, disrupting their regular hunt. Rules prohibit the observe off the coast of Florida, however no such restrictions have been positioned on operations in Bahamian or different Caribbean waters.

Reef sharks develop as much as 10ft lengthy and are among the many largest predators right here. Ernst felt excited to catch sight of them, as she had numerous occasions. With a whole lot of dives underneath her belt, it’s arduous to think about that she as soon as feared this sport.

Despite the fact that she lived 1,000-plus miles from the ocean at her acreage in Marshalltown, Iowa, one thing about scuba diving had intrigued Ernst – and terrified her. Someday in 2011 she thought: you’ll be able to’t undergo life avoiding the issues that you simply concern. So she signed up for a category within the shallow recreation pool on the YMCA, and shortly after, a colleague at a coaching in Florida pointed her within the course of Grand Bahama Scuba.

Heidi Ernst’s shells from scuba diving journeys pictured at her residence in Marshalltown, Iowa. {Photograph}: Kathryn Gamble/The Guardian

That afternoon, she leaped into the water for her 524th dive. The dive rope hooked up to remnants of a shipwreck, and the sandy backside in entrance of the wreckage contained a treasure: shark enamel. The sharks passed by and paid no thoughts to the divers.

Ernst buoyed as much as the floor after they completed and, after all of the others have been again aboard, climbed the boat’s ladder. She ditched her diving masks, her oxygen tank, her buoyancy compensator and her fins, eradicating her wetsuit final, dropping all of it on the deck.

She splashed again down into the water to alleviate herself earlier than the experience again to shore.

At 73, she felt triumphant in her sport, a mermaid. She had earned her gills.

However even a grasp couldn’t have been ready for what got here subsequent.


Ernst grabbed the highest rung of the boat’s ladder to thrust her weight as much as climb again aboard. Her proper foot went ahead. She started to take a step along with her left foot when a monstrous ache hit.

There had been no indicators of a menace lurking within the water. The shark got here out of nowhere, rising from the water, jaws open. It chomped down, sinking its enamel into Ernst’s left leg, shattering her bones immediately.

The scene she turned to see horrified her. A Caribbean reef shark, most likely 5ft in size, had clenched its daggers into her calf and pulled Ernst’s total foot into the depths of its mouth.

She balled her left hand right into a fist and punched it. Considered one of its enamel stabbed her center finger.

A crew member delivered one other blow, kicking its head. The assailant lastly launched her leg, and adrenaline helped Ernst scramble up the ladder.

To cease the blood loss, the divemaster wrapped a tourniquet across the gaping wound. His spouse contacted land, asking them to prepared an ambulance and name the hospital.

I do know I’m going to lose this leg, Ernst thought. However I don’t need to die.

In dying’s proximity, a imaginative and prescient overtook her. She felt herself floating above the boat, rising by the air. No wounds, no blood, no ache. The white puffy clouds painted the blue skies like one in every of Michelangelo’s ornate ceilings. Pure peace, however not for lengthy.

Again in her physique, she lay on the boat’s deck in excruciating ache. A shower of blood welled round her, the salt water nonetheless dripping off her physique.

A younger man cradled her head in his lap and prayed along with her because the boat sped to shore. Ernst had stopped going to church for a few years, however just some months in the past she had determined to return to providers. Possibly it was in preparation for this.

“Please don’t let me die,” she pleaded.

Ernst seems to be out her window at her residence. {Photograph}: Kathryn Gamble/The Guardian

Emergency crews rushed Ernst to a neighborhood hospital to stabilize her damaged fibula. The following day, they flew her to Fort Lauderdale and an ambulance sped her to Ryder trauma heart at Jackson Memorial in Miami.

The medical doctors there had to determine what to do.

In the midst of 10 days, Ernst’s medical staff would transfuse 9 models of blood, roughly a pint every, to account for all that she had misplaced (a mean grownup holds 10 models). A day after the assault, the trauma staff didn’t but know the totality of the blood loss. They frightened extra a couple of correlated drawback: the open wound had left Ernst weak to the salt water’s flesh-eating micro organism.

The severed nerves, arteries and veins meant no blood may move to her left foot. It turned black. Ever for the reason that assault, the extremity had sagged and had no feeling, a kind of paralysis often known as drop foot. Reattachment appeared bleak. There was no assure that the surgeon may deliver the nerves and blood vessels again to life, and even a healed wound, the staff believed, promised super ache.

As a substitute, the surgeon advisable an amputation.

The medical doctors indifferent Ernst’s left foot and all however just a few inches of that calf, slicing away the specter of continued an infection. They reattached the flesh and the nerves on the backside of the appendage.

For some amputees, the primary time viewing their severed limb will be devastating. However as a bodily therapist, Ernst knew what it will appear to be proper after surgical procedure, how it will heal, how it will must shrink down earlier than working with a prosthetist.

When she gained consciousness after the surgical procedure, Ernst questioned what remained underneath all of the dressing now wrapped round her residual limb. Unspooling the bandaging, she was not crammed with shock, anger or unhappiness. If this was the price of her life being spared, she would settle for it.

It helped that the surgeon had been capable of salvage one factor under that knee: her shark tattoo.

Although her physique felt unmovable, she had witnessed robust will after debilitation earlier than. Her husband, Invoice Ernst, as soon as a burly firefighter, may barely stroll 10ft after a large stroke in 2013. With the assistance of bodily remedy, he regained a number of extra years of independence earlier than his dying in 2019 after further strokes and a combat with most cancers. If he may do it, so can I, she informed herself because the hospital’s staff wheeled her to bodily remedy.

Left: a shark tattoo adorns Ernst’s calf. Proper: Ernst holds an image of herself scuba diving. {Photograph}: Kathryn Gamble/The Guardian

A hospital psychologist informed her she most likely nonetheless hovered in survival mode, however that sooner or later, her trauma may get sparked like a wildfire and envelop her in its flames. A few occasions within the hospital, Ernst relived the assault whereas awake, however that has but to recur. No nightmares have jolted her from her slumber. She has not wallowed. After transient self-pity, she stopped the waves of negativity from crushing her by constructing a levee in her thoughts: You’re going to have a prosthesis that may permit you to do something you’d like.

Ernst relied on humor to get her by. When her buddy drove her the 20-plus-hour journey from the trauma heart again to Iowa, she insisted she be photographed outdoors of an Ihop restaurant. In any case, she could be hopping to get round.

A number of nationwide and native information retailers reported the assault. Individuals she didn’t know needed to assist her, together with one resident on the Iowa Veterans House who saved up all his Bingo winnings for her. Individuals who had seen her story talked to her like they knew her, and random individuals requested questions, like a boy on the Y who needed to know whether or not it harm. To assist reply the questions she knew lie behind individuals’s stares – or worse, their lack of eye contact – she bought a blue sock to cowl her appendage. It had an image of a shark, jaws agape, with daring lettering: “A SHARK DID IT.”

She now propped her stump up on a {hardware} bucket so she may nonetheless drive along with her proper foot, used parallel handlebars for balancing within the bathe, and developed a routine to propel herself on to her zero-turn using garden mower.

On 7 August, when Ernst turned 74, she posted on Fb: “The most effective factor about my birthday is that I had one!”


For 103 days, Ernst has put all her effort into gratitude for all times’s choices. However on this September day, her positivity requires no effort, no stoicism. She will barely management her giddiness.

In a small room on the Hanger Clinic in Ames, about 45 minutes from Ernst’s residence, the solar shines by the blinds as her clinician, Maggie Siebel, brings within the prized possession.

A few weeks prior, one other clinician had circled an iPad round her amputated leg. The scan was used to 3D-print a leg socket that serves as a place to begin. Siebel can soften it down and make changes proper in the identical constructing. Ernst will get to attempt it out.

“OK, so what we’re gonna do is stand and step down on this,” Siebel says, holding the leg.

Ernst pushes her bulbous appendage, wrapped in a gel layer, by the slim gap – like squeezing into the tightest pair of leather-based pants.

Siebel examines the match. It wants a few changes. “After which we’ll stroll for actual.”

When Siebel and her resident Hunter Shaull exit, Ernst pulls cloth from her purse to indicate the neighbor who has pushed her right here. The fabric might be added to the socket, giving the mechanical-looking object a contact of character. She has chosen a vivid blue materials, emblazoned with Caribbean reef sharks.

Siebel carries within the improved leg. It’s time to stroll.

After she pulls the prosthesis on, Ernst clutches steel handrails to face up. Since amputation, Ernst has been hopping on her proper leg with a walker, balancing her foot within the heart of her physique. Now she should regulate her gait for 2 legs.

“I’m not going to be operating, but,” Ernst jokes.

“We at all times say, ‘You didn’t be taught to stroll in a day if you have been a child, and it’s form of the identical factor,” Siebel replies.

“Truly – I hate operating,” Ernst says, laughing. “So I’ve an excuse now.”

“You completely do,” Siebel responds.

Between a number of adjustment rounds, Shaull reveals Ernst an affordable swimming fin that straps onto her amputated leg, an concept she loves. Over the last trial stroll, Ernst experiences an odd sensation.

“I really feel my Achilles tendon,” she says. The one that’s not there.

There’s science to clarify this: despite the fact that the tendon is gone, the nerve ending isn’t and strolling with the prosthesis makes it fireplace off. There’s additionally one thing past science: a reminder to Ernst that her physique works miracles.


Only a day has handed after the prosthesis becoming when Ernst books a November flight to the Bahamas. She’s lastly in for clean waters. Figuring out she may have two legs, she’s going to be capable to stroll all the way down to the dock for yet one more dive journey earlier than the late December air chills the water.

However a brand new impediment comes out of nowhere.

On the date her leg is meant to be prepared, scheduled about two weeks after her becoming, it’s not. Then extra time passes, so one October day she calls to inquire in regards to the holdup.

The prosthetist tells her that preauthorization from Medicare has been denied. The company won’t cowl the price of the leg. Most 74-year-old amputees don’t want a leg that high-tech, the company has rationalized.

Ernst walks months after the assault. {Photograph}: Kathryn Gamble/The Guardian

However most 74-year-olds usually are not scuba-diving, acreage-owning, physical-therapy-providing individuals like Heidi Ernst.

For the primary time for the reason that assault, tears stream down her face from the cruelty. She imagines the individuals within the Medicare workplace scoffing at her declare, seeing her solely as a quantity. How may they deny a prosthetic leg for somebody who’s been hopping round on one leg for nearly 5 months?

The clinicians guarantee her they may combat again. As a substitute of letting the anger wash over her, she opts for persistence – a advantage on which she now depends.

Because the assault, she typically wonders: Why did this shark assault me when shark assaults are uncommon? Am I being punished? However then she remembers her life was saved. She has been spared for some larger objective.

She hasn’t but absolutely discovered why. Then sooner or later in late October she will get the decision. After greater than three weeks of preventing Medicare: victory.

She squeezes the leg on as soon as extra on the clinic – it wants just a few changes. That’s form of the theme of Ernst’s life now.

One thing like this could swallow many individuals entire. However Ernst stays fearless, and he or she by no means takes life too severely. She has named her new leg “Chomp”.


In November 2023, she as soon as once more climbed aboard a ship, sailed out to sea and dived along with her mates at Grand Bahama Scuba. And, sure, with the sharks.

Although diving felt therapeutic, one thing else bothered her. On the boat, she’d wanted help getting round. Detrimental ideas intruded, to the purpose the place she wanted a day to herself.

She recovered by doing what solely an amputee may.

She kicked herself within the behind along with her prosthetic leg and informed herself to get a grip. As a substitute of fascinated by all that she couldn’t do, she considered all that she may. That, effectively, was rather a lot.

Emily Barske Wooden is an Iowa journalist who studies and edits human curiosity tales, particularly these associated to inclusion. She works part-time for the Des Moines Enterprise Document and for NPR’s Public Editor staff. She is finishing her MFA in narrative nonfiction by the College of Georgia


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