"A Race Against Time"

Peter Jennings

For Mandira Wasgare, entering Hermanos Amejeiros Hospital in Havana on a December afternoon, death is as near as it can be. Minutes… seconds… matter.

Clearly, this is not the Christmas vacation she was hoping for.

She'd worked her butt off for many months before December came around and now, as the 25th loomed, it was reward time: an opportunity to bask in Cuba’s warm sun and inviting sea.

But in the 50 minutes since she’s been savagely attacked at a resort beach, her body has started to shut down. She’s already lost more than half of her blood – a condition we as humans are not meant to sustain. Mandira faces mere minutes left in her existence as a once lively 28-year-old, here in Cuba for the time of her life.

On arrival at the hospital, staff members whisk her upstairs. They hastily plant her on an antiquated trauma bed in a dimly lit room.

But they realize they’ve never dealt with this kind of brutal attack before. Mandira’s body has already experienced so much trauma that her veins have shrunk. They are unable to insert an IV to allow fluids and medications to enter into her bloodstream: In fact, the medics now fear that not enough blood will get to her brain.

So they make an on-the-spot decision to insert a central line directly into Mandira’s heart. It’s a dangerous yet urgent attempt to keep her alive.

But the effort doesn’t go well. Despite their tries, bids to save Mandira Wasgare are failing. The clock ticks.

She panics. She feels she can no longer breathe. That effort alone is grueling.

Her mind races. Can it be? Has she really endured one of the most fearful

experiences tormenting the human imagination?

Is she really the victim of an incredibly rare, vicious shark attack?

Only an hour ago, she was enjoying the languid waters of the warm ocean when suddenly, without warning, huge, indifferent, jagged teeth began gnashing at her body, leaving her dying in a sea of blood.

Images swim back into her memory. She sees herself enjoying that restful dip in the shallow water while other guests at the resort have retreated from the noonday sun to enjoy pre-lunch drinks on the patio.

But suddenly, Mandira realizes something is wrong.

She doesn't know it, but a ferocious bull shark – the meanest of all 440 types of sharks –is just feet away from her.

Without warning, she is overcome by a sickening, sinking feeling of panic.

She freezes momentarily, then pivots, looking toward the beach.

So near yet so far.

She begins to wade in from the ocean, her feet touching the sandy bottom as she presses against the heavy water's weight.

But now, the full-bodied shark is just feet away. It strains its eyes to glimpse at the activity ahead.

Before Mandira can blink, the beast rips into her upper left leg with lightning speed.

Barbed, knife-like teeth tear apart her flesh and muscles, slashing with a huge, gnawing bite that ends at bone.

It is as brutal an attack as you could possibly imagine.

The impact is massive. The shark yanks away more than a fifteen-inch

circumference of her leg. Just like that.

The action is as fast and penetrating as it would take you to aim a well-sharpened knife at a juicy watermelon.

In. Out. Done.

Executed with efficiency in under two seconds.

The shark’s wild shaking action strips away traces of Mandira’s flesh.

It leaves a deep, gaping wound, unfathomable in its intensity. The bite goes right to the femur, the longest, heaviest, and strongest bone in the entire human body.

The ocean is instantly ablaze with the shock of bright, billowing, red blood.

Thoroughly, quickly, the soft greenish hue of the water becomes obscured

into a horrid shade of purplish mass.

Mandira fights the stench of her own fresh blood and the coppery smell it exhibits. At the same time, she knows that sharks like blood. This is the last place she wants to be.

She needs to get out of there. Instantly.

She focuses solely on the need to survive: she must make every effort to save her own life.

But moving anywhere isn’t going to happen quickly. The shark has already demolished the muscles in her left leg.

And this creature’s not done with her yet.

Abandoning her lower limb and circling around her body with astounding speed, the

beast now lunges at her left arm, clenching the limb in its rapacious jaws, squeezing

with monumental pressure.

Mandira can’t believe what is happening.

She screams.

She fights to keep control of her faculties.

The shark now has her entire arm locked in its mouth.

It’s biting hard.

And it’s starting to pull her down into the anonymous depths of the ocean. The realization flashes upon her psyche: she may drown and no one will ever find her body. They will never know what happened to her.

She’ll simply be gone.

She catches a momentary glimpse of her attacker’s horrifying, eerie, lifeless black eyes. So penetrating. Yet so indifferent.

The force of the shark is unbelievable. Its determination is unyielding.

But somehow, summoning inhuman strength from a primordial instinct,

Mandira manages to find vigor. She raises her right fist and smashes it down on the

animal’s nose.

Just like that. From out of nowhere. Determined to fight fire with fire.

At the same time, she yanks her left arm towards her body.

To her great surprise and relief, she actually manages to loosen the predator’s grip.

The bull shark lets go.

It’s convinced now that she is not a meal worth savoring nor a foe worth

pursuing.

Just as quickly as it arrived, the beast turns and dives down deeper, swimming off to new adventures. Perhaps.

Mandira is left flailing in a sea of blood.

Struggling. Writhing. Bewildered. Shocked. And full of trauma and fear.

She is in danger of losing consciousness.

But the bull shark is known for letting its prey bleed to death and then returning to

finish the meal minutes later.

Will it be back?

So much has happened so quickly, it is impossible to compute what anything means.

Time slows down for Mandira. Is the shark circling for more? Can she keep herself above the waves?

Her left arm is hanging, barely there.

Her left leg lacks any function at all.

And the sea continues to turn crimson incredibly quickly, full of her blood.

Her movement against the weight of the water is sluggish, thick, lacking in energy.

Through blurry eyes, she looks out to see a jet ski driver.

He has witnessed this event from afar. But he sits on his machine, motionless, in shock.

Summoning up fading staying power, Mandira attempts to call out breathlessly, hoarsely: “Help... me... get… out of here.” She fears her exhausted strength is not enough to even push the words forward.

The jet ski guy blinks several times. He seems to be slowly coming to the

awareness that his actions alone may make the difference between losing a life and

saving one.

Slowly, he accelerates and advances toward Mandira’s flailing body. She is now in danger of a silent death beneath the surface of the sea.

He grabs at her as best he can and begins pulling her to shore.

A trail of blood covers the surface of the sea behind her.

The jet ski driver has no experience with this. Fighting shock, he struggles to stay alert and works his way toward the beach.

He lands the machine, jumps off and yanks Mandira, face down, onto the sand in a clumsy, yet lifesaving move.

He stands back, unsure…

A crowd begins forming.

Spanish and English voices become echoes to her.

She is suffocating.

And she just wants to go to sleep, the impact of this event has been so arduous.

The people arriving around her are in shock, dazed.

“Help me…” she gasps, her face now awash with new grit from the sand.

Mandira’s voice has jolted the people around her. They seem to escape from their stupor.

Someone realizes they need to turn her over.

They pull her body around.

She now lies face up, covered in blood, sand and seawater.

She feels like she is burning up under the blistering noon Cuban sun which

scalds her eyes.

Amazingly, her arm is intact, although a huge chunk has been ripped from it.

Bystanders see the massive hole in her leg, exposed right to the bone.

Some turn away, unable to stomach such horror.

Mandira is now so traumatized, so exhausted, all she wants to do is close her eyes and mind to the awful reality that confronts her. Sleep will be a welcome outcome.

Yet the fading fragments of common sense tell her that giving in to slumber here and now is akin to saying a final adios to this beach of despair.

Still… just as the shark has relied on primal urges, so too Mandira’s sensibility forces itself into gear.

“Talk… to… me!” she gasps to anyone who will listen. “Keep me awake…" she appeals in a fading voice.

But the last thing she really wants to do is remain awake, aware. It is a struggle.

She has lost so much blood that breathing is nearing impossible levels.

Her body is spent, waning, needing to shut down.

Every time her heart beats, a coursing stream of blood is literally squirting from her left leg, jetting up a foot the air like the spray from an unruly hose.

“Don’t… let… me… go… to… sleep…” she begs softly, barely able to speak now, her strength sapped, her eyes closing.

The temptation to drift off into a peaceful slumber becomes overwhelming.

A bystander whispers, “She’s going to die. You don’t lose that amount of blood and stay alive. You just don’t.”

“Get a backboard to put her on!” someone screams.

The sound of a siren blares amidst the shouting. An ambulance.

A glazed look has fallen upon Mandira’s eyes. A blank stare. She can no longer focus.

As strong as she is… as resilient as her constitution allows her to be… she is losing her battle for life.

Her heart is running out of the strength it needs simply to pump.

She has barely any pulse at all now.

There seems little anyone can do other than look on in dismay and terror. Others turn away, unable to bear witness to what will surely become life’s end.

Suddenly, paramedics, screaming in Spanish, are on the beach. Their voices are meaningless echoes to her mind. But they know they need to get her to a hospital in seconds.

Strapping Mandira’s body to a backboard, the crisis workers begin trudging through the hot, heavy sand, plodding their way up the unyielding beach.

They stop to catch their breath.

They push forward again.

It’s like trekking through a desert wasteland at high noon: merciless.

And only this fact is clear: if you were present on that dreadful day in December,

you’d be forgiven for bursting into tears, bearing witness to the sad scene of a vibrant,

dynamic lady fighting to survive, struggling to overcome her collapse from existence.

But they arrive at the hospital. The Hermanos Amejeiros medical team is ready to do what they can.

At last, they are successful with inserting the IV into Mandira's bloodstream which

will allow fluids and medications to react. Hastily they begin the horrendous task of

pulling together the huge, gaping wounds in her arm and leg.

They are fighting the clock to save her life.

All bets are off.

Yet, after an intense seven-hour struggle, during which time Mandira Wasgare’s very existence appears to be ebbing away, they are surprisingly successful.

She has beaten the chilling call of death.

She will live to see other adventures in her young life.

Indeed, she will live to celebrate a better Christmas elsewhere.

While she does not know this, surgeons back home will eventually find it necessary to amputate her left arm due to the mammoth, gnawing wounds that have left the limb dangling, useless. They will fight to save her leg.

But, for now, she is alive. And still battling to overcome the trauma that has attempted to take over her life.

Mandira languishes in her hospital bed, five days later telling a visiting reporter from a Cuban periodical that she does not blame the shark for nearly destroying her.

"My fault," she states simply, "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Truth be told, her stay in Cuba has been less than alluring. Somewhat naively, she had presumed that this predominantly Roman Catholic country would celebrate Christmas in special ways. How wrong she was. It took little time to accept that in the communist-run republic, Castro et al had rejected capitalism, part and parcel of that being the commercialization of Christmas. So there would be no carols, no services, no observances...

"I'm sure you will never visit Cuba again, will you?" she's asked. "I mean, after

this horrendous experience..."

"No, no," she says. " I cannot blame your country and I cannot blame an animal that was merely trying to protect its own domain."

The reporter rests his pen, struggling to understand the resilience of this stalwart lady as she sums up her irrepressible optimism. Her final thought on the matter will become the headline to his story. They are the words of exuberant hope.

"I just look forward to Christmas being like it once was."