State News

Survivors of Oak Island shark attacks adjust

Posted September 9

— Kiersten Yow has a different relationship with the ocean these days.

Though she's visited Carolina Beach and the Outer Banks the past two summers, she hasn't waded back into the water since the summer of 2015, when she lost part of left arm and suffered damage to her left leg when a shark attacked her.

Despite the traumatic encounter, the Asheboro teenager, seen smiling in the pictures that grace the "Support Kiersten Yow" Facebook group, hasn't been soured on the coast — she just sticks to the pool these days.

?(I) really don't have any interest in going back in the ocean," Kiersten said in an email. "There are many other activities to enjoy too."

Kiersten was one of eight people across North Carolina to have encounters with a shark in the summer of 2015, an unusually strong showing of sharks for which experts still debate the cause.

This week, Kiersten arrived at her first day of high school, the kind of typical teenage experience she desperately wanted to have after the injury.

"I wanted to get back to normal and do what my friends were doing," she said. "I couldn't change what happened but I could look ahead to the future and make the most of it."

Life after the shark encounter has, understandably, been a period of adjustment for the teen. She's had to cut back on sports she once played, but filled her time with new interests like managing the volleyball team last year; volunteering; rejoining the marching band, in which she now plays the trumpet; and taking extra coursework so she can graduate with an associate's degree.

"For the most part, I have found my new normal," she said. "I have to do some things differently, but have figured out the way that works for me."

In place of the limb she lost, Kiersten now has a myoelectric hand, an iLimb Quantum to be exact, which works with the muscles in her arm to operate finger movement and perform pre-programmed grips and finger patterns.

"It was fairly easy to learn and adjust to," she said. "I did go to occupational therapy to practice various activities. It is just thinking about opening and closing your hand to make the motions. I am grateful that the surgeons were able to reattach my arm muscles in a way that makes this process much easier."

Since her initial hospital stay in 2015, she has undergone three surgeries to help rebuild tissue she lost on her left leg and reduce the persistence of pain down the road. She will require one more surgery, but her mother, Laurie, said they want to hold off for now.

"We are going to give her time to be a teen for a bit," Laurie said.

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Kiersten was not the only beachgoer whose life changed in an instant in the summer of 2015. Hunter Treschl, a teenage boy from Colorado, also lost his arm in an attack in Oak Island.

In an email this week, his mother, Sarah, said he graduated from high school in May and now attends Grinnell College in Iowa, studying political science and economics. Hunter wears a prosthetic arm sometimes, Sarah said, but "mostly finds life easier without the prosthesis."

She added he's been able to maintain a typical teenage life, especially the freedom of driving his car. He, like Kiersten, has made return trips to the beach, including one special visit to the Bahamas with Discovery Channel's "Shark Week."

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Between 2010-14 and 2016-17, the N.C. coast saw 18 total encounters, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File. This year, he said he only has reports of one in June in Wrightsville Beach. That incident has been disputed, as the man injured was trying to catch the shark by Johnny Mercers Fishing Pier and could have been hurt by a hook.

Burgess said the question isn't why 2017 has seen possibly only one encounter, but why 2015 was such an active year.

"What you have done is return to normalcy," he said. "You had an odd year where there was too much activity."

What brought such a concentrated number of sharks off the Cape Fear coast that summer is still up for debate. But Burgess believes it could have been spurred by fresh water runoff from heavy rains (an attraction for bull sharks, which are believed to be what attacked Yow and others), warmer water from the south and more schools of fish. These are in addition to the swelling number of people taking to the water during the summer months, he said.

Chuck Bangley, a postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said that was all compounded by a heat wave that transitioned spring into summer much quicker than normal, causing a shift in marine movements.

"It seemed to have triggered a mass migration," he said, of one prevailing theory. "A lot of marine life are cued by temperature shifts or they are cued by their food moving around."

In all, Burgess said it was a perfect storm of events.

"It was a potpourri of things that went on," he said. "I was reviewing everything and there was no one smoking gun. It was a suite of different things that overlapped."

Research into shark behavior in the area is still ongoing. The N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher will participate in a year-long study of sharks and other marine life up the Cape Fear River.

But as more people congregate on the coast with each passing year, Burgess said chances are high the state could see another summer with a rash of encounters on the coast.

"More humans means more encounters," he said.

As for Kiersten, she doesn't plan on dipping back into the ocean, but a return trip to Oak Island to visit family isn't out of the question.

"I still enjoy walking on the beach, I just don't care to go in water where I can't see what is coming," she said.

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