Oregon Surfer Survives Shark Attack Thanks to Medical Training

Image: Terry Goss

Image: Terry Goss

Nurses and orderlies may be statistically three times more likely than construction workers to suffer from back injuries — but a shark attack? As it turns out, medical training comes in handy in this unlikely event, even when the victim himself is the nurse.

Joseph Tanner, a 29-year-old trauma nurse from Portland, Oregon, was surfing near Cannon Beach earlier this month when he felt something grab his leg and pull him under the water.

“I opened my eyes and there were gills in front of me,” Tanner said at a recent press conference. He knew right away that he had been taken by a shark, and that the only way to defend himself was to punch it with his fists.

“I can’t reach the nose and I can’t reach the eyeballs, so I just started hitting the gills,” he recalled.

The tactic worked: the shark released him, and Tanner began to swim inland, warning other surfers around him to get out of the water. But as blood ran from his leg where the shark had bitten him, Tanner knew he wasn’t out of danger yet.

“I just paddled my life away. That was probably the scariest moment, trying to get back to the shore and leaving a trail of blood,” he said.

When he finally reached the beach, Tanner used his nursing knowledge to instruct others on how to fashion a tourniquet out of a shirt and his surfboard leash, to wrap around his badly wounded leg. As they made the call for medical assistance, Tanner gave the responders his blood type in case he needed an immediate transfusion. He also had help cutting off his wetsuit in order to hook up an IV when they arrived.

Tanner was helicoptered to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, the same hospital where he works.

“I remember being in the trauma bay and two of my co-workers were on either side of me. They were in drapes and lights and they literally looked angelic,” he said. “It was like a breath of relief to see these familiar faces.”

After several surgeries, Tanner is now recovering from the 26-inch bite mark that experts believe was made by a Great White shark. He hopes to use his story as a lesson to other surfers. He advises that they be aware of their blood type, know how to tie a tourniquet, and always wear a thick wetsuit for protection.

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