Upon his release from the hospital last Thursday, Jimmy “Ulu Boy” Napeahi and his family loaded into their car and drove straight to the spot near Pohoiki Boat Ramp where he was attacked by a shark Aug. 18.
“I know we probably shouldn’t have. I know he needs rest. We should have taken him straight home,” said his mother, Claire Napeahi. “But he wanted to do it, and I agreed, and the next thing you know, we were there.”
The 16-year-old surfer spoke little as he looked from the car window out into the water, where an estimated 10-foot tiger shark bit him repeatedly, puncturing and gashing his feet, legs, hips and buttocks — to the bone in some places.
His mother, along with his father Rex, brother Kiko, 20, sisters Tristi, 24, and Manu, 18, all sat there quietly at the edge of the water, watching the waves, she said.
“He was quiet,” she said. “There were just a lot of emotions and feelings we all had. For us, it had been a big scare.”
The family knows that neither the shark nor their son is to blame for what happened. It was just fate, they said.
“I’ve always taken him to the beach, ever since he was little, and I always thought they could never get hurt at the beach. The ocean was their playground. I thought that was the best place for them,” she said.
Since that first return trip to Pohoiki, Claire says she’s taken her son out to look at the water every day as he continues to recuperate at his grandmother’s home in Kaumana. His recovery after emergency surgery at Hilo Medical Center was slowed two weeks ago by an infection close to the bone in his leg that required a second surgery and implantation of a drainage tube.
“They flushed it out with saline and just worked to keep it clean. Then they pumped me with antibiotics for another 12 days,” Napeahi said. “With the doctor we came to the conclusion that there was more harmful bacteria in the facility than anywhere else, so we thought it would be best if I go to my grandma’s house to finish recuperating.”
For his part, the young man says he is ready to get back in the water, but his doctors tell him it will be another two weeks before the multiple gashes left by the shark’s razor-sharp teeth have completely closed. After that, he will be able to begin a month-long physical therapy plan, complete with weight training and swimming in a pool to regain strength in his lower extremities.
“I was really scared when I was in the hospital. I couldn’t see the light out of the tunnel,” he said. “Every night I sat in bed and thought about the situation. But now, I’m trying to keep a positive attitude. I’m not religious, but I definitely do believe in something, like God. I’m really blessed to be alive.”
If there’s anything this whole experience has taught him, it has been patience, he said.
Napeahi is a rapidly rising semipro in the surfing world, ranking as high as the No. 12 junior in Hawaii, and the 24th junior surfer within the region. But despite his success, the young man says he had continued to push himself to do more. The shark attack effectively put his surfing on hold, Napeahi said, but that may have been a blessing in disguise.
“This injury, it was kind of a bummer. I had just started my career in the men’s surfing, and I did really well. I was on a good streak. But maybe this was a good learning lesson. I had always been the kind of kid who rushed things. I never had patience. So maybe it made me step back and make me realize how blessed I am. It made me really humble, and just look at life and how good it is,” he said.
Throughout his ordeal, Napeahi said his schoolmates, family, friends — and especially his best friend Kapono Crivello and girlfriend Melia Auld — have been incredibly supportive.
“They’ve been by my side the whole time. They’ve just been great,” he said.
Meanwhile, his mother says that the family is extremely thankful for the care and attention they’ve received from Hilo Medical Center’s trauma program coordinator Louise Fincher and surgeon Dr. Josh Pierce.
“The trauma team responded very well, and the head nurse Louise, she’s followed Ulu all the way until (Tuesday), when she showed up at the doctor’s office when he had his stitches out,” Claire said. “And Dr. Josh is such a wonderful doctor. He did a beautiful job on Ulu. He even stitched him up instead of using staples (which can cause more scarring), taking into consideration he’s young.”
As for her son, Claire says she’s been impressed by his toughness and willingness to overcome adversity.
“Mentally, he’s all good with it. He faced it, came to terms with it, and now he’s ready to move on,” she said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.