At night, Jei Turrell still has nightmares of his last trip to Hilton Head Island on Mother’s Day.
And during the day, the 11-year-old Hampton County boy hides his right arm whenever he can.
He’s afraid people will “get grossed out” and “lose their appetite” if they see the large circular scar covering a large part of his forearm where a 5-foot shark sunk its teeth while he and his brother were splashing in waste-deep water on a Hilton Head beach.
The incident was the worst shark bite Hilton Head had seen since 2015 when a 9-year-old was bitten by a shark. The 12-mile island saw a record-breaking eight shark bites last summer on Hilton Head, but all of those were considered minor, according to experts at the International Shark Attack File.
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“Even when you’re bitten by a shark, you still gotta be polite,” he said with a slight smile.
But Jei was in a lot more pain than he showed in front of the cameras, his mom, Tonya, told the Island Packet this month.
For the Turrell family, the past seven months have been focused on recovering — emotionally and physically— from the incident that changed their lives.
“Even now that it’s been so many months, it’s still just surreal and it’s hard to believe it happened,” she said. “I think it really shifted everyone’s priorities in the family.”
Memories of Mother’s Day have haunted Tonya and the Turrell family every day.
She still pinpoints the one moment and one decision she so badly wishes she could change when her family was visiting Hilton Head that day. She wanted to go to the beach, and the boys wanted to go fishing.
“It was Mother’s Day and I loved the beach then, so we did what I wanted to,” she said. “I just feel guilty. This wouldn’t have happened if we just went fishing like they wanted to.”
She remembers every detail of the beach trip — all of the tiny little moments leading up to and following the instant that sent their lives spinning.
She remembers hearing Jei and his brother’s shrilling screams, “Shark! Shark!” from the shore and the panicked sprint to the lifeguard stand.
She remembers wrapping her son’s mangled arm in a towel and how fast his blood turned the white towel red. She remembers the blank stares from the lifeguard when she asked if he had a tourniquet.
She remembers the seconds painfully passing as her son’s blood saturated another T-shirt in the 15 minutes they waited for an ambulance to arrive. She remembers the long 47-mile ride to Savannah as her son was airlifted by helicopter to the hospital.
“I just kept thinking ‘What if he doesn’t make it there?’” she said.
She remembers seeing the helicopter that took Jei when she arrived at Savannah Memorial and darting from the parking lot to the emergency room, where she signed consent forms as fast as she could think and caught her son for a brief moment before he was wheeled into surgery.
“I needed someone to tell me he was going to be OK,” Tonya said. “He had just lost so much blood.”
Finally after more than two hours, she heard those words she needed — the surgeon told her Jei did great and he would be OK.
Physically, the inside of his arm was “totally shredded,” Tonya said after looking at photos from the surgeon.
There were too many stitches to count, the surgeon told Jei’s family. For as bad as the injury looked on the outside with a circle of stitches tracing around his entire forearm, the inside was worse. The muscle tubes and tendons that controlled movement in his arm all had to be individually stitched back in place.
Despite the fact that the odds of person getting a shark bite are about 1 in 3.7 million, Jei was still very lucky, the surgeon said.
“The shark’s teeth missed a major artery by just a few millimeters,” Tonya said.
Just a slight movement could have made the attack fatal. Tonya thinks about that a lot.
Despite the good news, doctors were clear that Jei would have a long road to recovery. They weren’t sure if he’d ever regain feeling on the outside of his arm.
After dozens of trips to a specialist in Florida and nightly physical therapy sessions, Jei slowly regained feeling from his fingers to his forearm.
But as he regained feeling, the pain got worse.
“He’d wake up in the middle of the night so many times as the pain was just unbearable,” she said. “I just felt helpless, and terrible to see my son going through this.”
He still doesn’t have full functionality in his arm and struggles with day-to-day tasks involving his arm. His handwriting still isn’t legible. His strength in his right arm is diminished, which frustrates the 11-year-old.
“My arm’s like an old staircase,” he told his mom the other day as he had to stop stirring cookie batter. “It’s old and crickety.”
Mentally, Jei has made a lot of progress, too. For months, the sight of water or any sudden movements would ignite his PTSD, to the point he didn’t even want to swim in a pool. But Jei has made milestones in facing his fears, with the help of his family.
He visited Sea World this summer where he got the chance to get up close with a blacktip shark — the type of shark that bit him.
“Seeing and learning more about sharks at Sea World definitely brought the trauma to the forefront. I don’t think it was a re-traumatization. I think it was part of the healing process,” Tonya wrote in her blog. “It brought up all the scary feelings that Jei was hiding behind his brave face and tough exterior.”
His nightmares greatly subsided after that day at Sea World, Tonya said.
When asked what her family has learned from this experience, Tonya let out a long, honest sigh.
“So many things.
“We’ve really learned that every moment is precious, and everything can change in an instant,” Tonya said. “It just takes a second. They were happy and playing, and five minutes later, our entire world changed. You never know what force (is) outside of your control.”
This realization has really tightened their bond as a family, Tonya said.
“We go about our lives and take for granted that we’ll all be here the next day,” Tonya said. “Now we think about it every day. We are so lucky.”