Prosthetic Categories

After Losing Her Leg to a Shark, a 73-Year-Old Scuba Diver Bravely Returns to the Water

    The thought of co-existing in the same space with sharks can easily conjure feelings of uneasiness, primarily a product of how popular culture and movies, like the Jaws franchise, portray sharks. Although these movies are made to elicit fear, what these cultural products don’t show is how people who survived shark attacks deal with the aftermath. Heidi Ernst’s story, as told to The Guardian, gives us a peek.

     Heidi Ernst returns to the water in less than a year after losing her leg to a shark.

    Without warning  

    The day of the shark attack in June 2023 was Ernst’s 524th dive. She took up scuba diving 13 years earlier, and swimming with sharks was a common occurrence. Most sharks aren’t fazed by sharing the same space as humans. 

    However, tour operators in the scuba site—the Grand Bahama Scuba—are known to lure sharks to the surface to let visitors hand-feed them. This is a controversial practice as human feedings disrupt the sharks’ normal hunt. While some places have regulations that prohibit this practice, no such laws exist in Bahamian or other Caribbean waters.

    That afternoon, as Ernst was coming up to the boat, she felt a monstrous pain in her left leg. The shark came out of nowhere. It sunk its teeth into Ernst’s left leg, which shattered her bones instantly. After several kicks and blows from Ernst and a crew member, the shark finally let go. 

    Ernst was rushed to a local hospital. The next day, she was transferred to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial in Miami. There, Ernst was transfused with nine units of blood (an average adult holds ten units). But the blood loss wasn’t the medical team’s only worry. Ernst's exposed wound made her susceptible to the flesh-eating bacteria in the salt water.

    Her left foot turned black as no blood could flow to her foot. It also sagged and had no feeling. This is a symptom of drop foot, a type of paralysis. At this point, reattaching the foot looked bleak. The surgeon recommended an amputation.

    Losing a limb  

    For some people, seeing their severed limb for the first time can be devastating. But Ernst is a physical therapist. She knew what her residual limb would look like, how it would heal, and how it would need to shrink down before working with a prosthetist.

    Seeing her residual limb for the first time didn’t fill her with anger, sadness, or shock. Instead, Ernst accepted it as the cost of saving her life.

    When it was time for her physical therapy, Ernst drew strength from her late husband, who could barely walk 10 feet after a massive stroke in 2013. Ernst's husband regained several more years of independence with the help of physical therapy before passing away in 2019. This inspired Ernst to believe that if her husband could do it, she could too.

    A psychologist at the hospital told Ernst that she was probably still in survival mode, but one day, her trauma might unravel. But the thought of soon getting a prosthetic leg that would let her do anything she wanted kept Ernst from going on a downward spiral. 

    Before Ernst got her prosthetic leg, she improvised her driving setup by propping her residual limb on a hardware bucket while driving with her right foot. She also kept her balance in the shower with parallel handlebars.

    A dispute with Medicare  

    Three months later, in September 2023, Ernst went to her final prosthetic leg fitting. She also got an inexpensive swimming fin that straps onto her residual limb. But, a hiccup with Medicare delayed her from getting her prosthesis.

    In October 2023, Ernst was notified that Medicare wouldn’t cover the cost of her prosthetic leg, arguing that most 74-year-old amputees don’t need a leg that high-tech. However, Ernst was different from most 74-year-olds. She still provides physical therapy, owns an acreage, and hopes to return to scuba diving.

    This cruelty prompted Ernst to cry for the first time since the shark attack. She was disheartened that people in the Medicare office saw her only as a number. But her clinicians assured her that they would fight back.

    Three weeks later, Ernst emerged victorious. She got her prosthetic limb.

    Returning to the water  

    In November 2023, Ernst sailed to sea and dived with friends at Grand Bahama Scuba. And yes, sharks were in the area while she scuba-dived.

    While diving felt freeing, Ernst was bothered that she needed assistance—a feeling that is all too familiar for many people with limb loss.

    Ernst dealt with this feeling by taking a day for herself. She kicked out the negative thoughts by literally kicking herself in the behind with her prosthetic leg and telling herself to get a grip. 

    That day, she resolved to stop thinking about what she couldn’t do and instead focus on what she could do. Which, despite her situation, was still quite a lot.

    The bottom line  

    Everyone copes with the reality of limb loss in different ways. Ernst’s experience as a physical therapist prepared her for what was to come.

    She also drew strength from the people around her, particularly her late husband. Although he already passed, his perseverance in physical therapy inspired Ernst to persevere with her own rehabilitation journey.

    Although Ernst was familiar with the physical struggles that come with limb loss, she wasn’t immune to the mental challenges, like feeling discouraged that she needed assistance to move around. However, she learned to cope with the negativity by looking at the bright side—while there are many things she couldn’t do, there is still a lot that she could do. This mindset helps her as she navigates the amputee life.