Shark attack survivor: 'I don't feel sorry for myself'


By AGENCY

Paul de Gelder currently has several sets of prosthetic limbs – a robotic hand, three robotic walking legs, a running blade, a snowboarding leg, two diving legs and two weightlifting arms. Photo: Handout

For Australian Paul de Gelder, a horrifying bite from a bull shark in 2009 cost him a hand and a leg, changing his life forever.

But he neither blames nor fears the creature which attacked him. Instead, he now advocates for the conservation, preservation and protection of sharks. He is one of the stars on the Discovery Channel programme Shark Week, whose 32nd edition airs till Sept 6.

Over a Zoom call from Los Angeles, where he is based, the 43-year-old says: "I try to break down these preconceived notions that sharks are vicious, savage man-eaters lurking in the oceans, waiting to kill us all. That is what we see in the movies, it is just not true."

Sharks are not that interested in humans, he says, adding that most of their life is spent looking for food. "And if we are flapping around on the surface, we look like an injured animal."

That was probably what happened on Feb 11, 2009, the fateful day of his attack, which the former Royal Australian Navy clearance diver details in his 2011 autobiography No Time For Fear.

During a counter-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harbour, he was in the water when he felt a blow to his right leg.

Looking down, he saw the giant grey head of a 3m-long shark, with its lip pulled back, the upper row of its teeth on his leg. His right wrist was also in its mouth.

Once he got over the shock, de Gelder tried to stab the creature's eye with his left hand, but could not reach it. So he punched its nose as hard as he could, after which the beast started shaking him, its teeth sawing on his limbs.

That was when he started feeling pain and the shark pulled him under water. "I could only see bubbles in front of my face," de Gelder writes. "There was just a deep silence. And then, just as suddenly, the shark was gone."

Reaching the surface, he began swimming to a safety boat, but discovered that his hand was gone. The hamstring from his leg had also been torn and a plume of red blood - his own - surrounded him.

At that moment, de Gelder thought he was going to die. Thankfully, the safety boat reached him and his teammates pulled him out of the water.

He was immediately sent to hospital, where he underwent a massive blood transfusion. His severely damaged leg was also eventually amputated above the knee.

Over time, de Gelder got better, was discharged and picked up the pieces. He was determined to make the best of it. He learnt how to brush his teeth and cook with one hand.

After getting prosthetic limbs, he can now use a dustpan and broom as well as drive a car, ride a modified motorcycle, run, dive and even parachute.

Can he thread a needle and sew a button? "Oh yes, I have sewn many buttons," he says. "I use my teeth a lot."

He currently has several sets of prosthetic limbs – a robotic hand, three robotic walking legs, a running blade, a snowboarding leg, two diving legs and two weightlifting arms.

"My luggage gets really heavy when I travel," quips de Gelder, who is in a relationship and is now a motivational speaker.

In 2010, he also dabbled in modelling for an Australian men's underwear and swimwear line. He has appeared as a guest on every major Australian television talk show, as well as many in the United States.

The new edition of Shark Week features an episode titled Will Smith: Off The Deep End, in which de Gelder coaches Hollywood actor Will Smith to overcome his lifelong fear of sharks.

Having watched all of Smith's movies, such as The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006) and I Am Legend (2007), de Gelder says: "You see this larger-than-life character on the big screen playing all of these incredible people."

But when he got to spend time with Smith, he realised that, deep down, the star was no different from regular folk. "He still has fears, worries and things in his life that he needs to get over."

And like any other fear, he says the fear of sharks can be overcome.

"Like everyone else that I take diving with sharks, they get out of the water and the first thing they say is: 'That was probably the best thing I have ever done in my life.'"

Asked what trajectory his life might have taken had it not been for the shark bite, de Gelder says: "I wouldn't change it anymore, because I don't know who that person would be - what he would be doing, whether he would be happy.

"I know who I am now and I get to live an incredible life. I don't really feel sorry for myself at all." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Will Smith: Off The Deep End airs on Sept 6 at 5.28pm on Discovery Channel (Astro Ch 551).

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Shark Week , Will Smith , Paul de Gelder

   

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