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Shark bite survivor will snorkel again

Laura and Donnie Perry of Barnesville have taken many anniversary trips and will likely take many more but it is unlikely any will top their 30th anniversary trip to the Florida Keys in early July for drama. They traveled to the extreme south Florida, were staying in Islamorada and visited Key West on July 6. On Saturday, July 7 they set out for Key Largo where they had reservations for a 1:30 p.m. trip to snorkel in John Pennekamp State Park. They boarded a large pontoon boat with about 40 others and set out. There was a lot of boat traffic on the holiday weekend and they had to wait for a while in a line of boats to get out the cut from the pier. Once underway, the captain took them to Grecian Rocks about five miles out. It was a gorgeous day. The water was crystal clear. Once over the reef, the captain and dive master had a briefing and went over safety issues and some pre-arranged signals to be used if any trouble arose. Laura and Donnie had their own snorkeling equipment. Laura’s was blue like all the rental equipment but Donnie had a bright yellow snorkel, yellow swim fins and a yellow life jacket. ‘I must have looked like a lure,’ he says now. The trip was supposed to last two and a half hours but got terminated quickly. ’We hadn’t been in the water long. I came up and felt something on my knee. It felt more like pressure than a bite. I looked down and saw a shark attached to my knee,’ Donnie recalled. ‘So, I waved the prearranged signal. The captain and dive master were on the bow of the boat watching but at first they did not understand but then I got across to them that I had been bitten by a shark.’ Donnie could not swim with the injury so Laura grabbed him by the lifejacket and started pulling him toward the boat. ’In a matter of seconds, the dive master dove in and they got me back in the boat. Then they had to get all the other people out of the water and do a head count. Then we started for the pier as fast as a pontoon will go,’ Donnie added. There were a couple of nurses in the dive group who came to Donnie’s aid, cleaning up his wound and wrapping it in towels. The water was only about 10-12 feet deep and Donnie got a pretty good look at his attacker. ‘It was about five feet long. We think it was a lemon shark,’ he reported. The captain had radioed the Coast Guard and a rescue boat pulled alongside the pontoon. ‘Neither boat ever slowed down. Two rescue divers jumped into our boat. One was carrying backboard and the other had a large medical kit. Those guys were amazing,’ Donnie said. The rescue divers went to work, applying a tourniquet, washing the wound with fresh water, wrapping it in clean towels and applying pressure to staunch the flow of blood. ‘I never really felt much pain. I wasn’t going into shock. I was more worried about Laura,’ Donnie remembers. When the pontoon approached the cut, all boat traffic had been blocked and they sailed right through to the pier where an ambulance was waiting. EMTs took Donnie and Laura to Mariner’s Hospital in Key Largo where he got a tetanus shot and an IV. He then went by ambulance to Kendall Regional Hospital in Miami where he was met in the emergency room by a trauma team. Soon thereafter, he had his first surgery in which they trauma doctors cleaned the gaping wound thoroughly, getting debris out of it. A second surgery the following Monday involved a trauma surgeon, a plastic surgeon and an infectious disease specialist. Donnie has had a lot of antibiotics and has shown no sign of infection thus far but that could still happen. On June 14, he was released from the hospital and Laura drove them to Clearwater where they stayed a week. Donnie had a wheel chair and a knee brace. The brace twice pulled the dressing off the wound. The first time they went to another emergency room. ‘The second time, our insurance company found a wound care center where a nice woman fixed us up and gave me all the supplies I would need to clean the wound and change the dressing until I got him home. Things were much better after that’ Laura said. The Perrys got back to their home on Greenwood Street July 28 to find his brother, Ronnie, had installed a wheelchair ramp. Ronnie’s wife, Peggy, and Ronnie and Donnie’s sister, Becky Buffington, had made up ‘˜I Survived’ t-shirts for both. Donnie is not out of the woods yet. He confined to his wheelchair, cannot work and is being treated at Wellstar Cobb, a sister facility to the Miami hospital. He is also seeing an orthopedist because his kneecap was dislocated by the shark. ‘I’m doing a few exercises but there will be more when the wound heals up,’ said Donnie, who grew up in Thomaston and has worked for years at Quad Graphics. Laura was born in London and has lived in Africa, Greece and the Phillippines. She came to the area when her parents, Jim and Betty Wagner, bought a farm in The Rock. ’She lived all over the world and then moved here so she could meet me,’ Donnie quipped. The Perrys have two children. A daughter, Amy Nelson, lives in Warner Robins. Their son, Ryan Perry, resides in Meansville. Looking back over their hectic July, the Perrys know they are blessed. They see the humor and the strangeness to their ‘˜little adventure’ as they call it. ’I was in the water with all that bright yellow gear. I was the only one with yellow stuff on. I must have looked like bait. We are Jimmy Buffet fans and I keep hearing those lyrics ‘˜Fins to the left, fins to the right and I’m the only bait in town’,’ Donnie laughed. They found it strange that shark bites were very uncommon in the Florida Keys. ‘When I got to the hospital in Miami, they had heard a shark bite victim was on the way in. People crowded around to see it. None of them had ever seen one. People kept visiting my room just to look at the wound. The never see shark bites. They see injuries from jet ski accidents,’ Donnie said. ’One nurse at the first hospital in Key Largo had been there 19 years and seen only one or two shark bites until this year when she has now seen four or five,’ Laura added. Donnie insists he will snorkel again once he recuperates and continues to look at the silver lining in his near tragedy. ’When you go through something like this, you look back and realize how lucky you were. I got bit two or three times but the shark did not hit my femoral artery. His lower jaw was in that area and there are not as many teeth there. There were six or eight children in our group. They would have bled out. I am glad it got me and not one of them,’ he concluded.

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