Nine-year-old Meti Kershner was boogie boarding with her family Oct. 9 on a Hilton Head Island beach when her sister felt something pass her leg in the knee-deep water.
Kershner then felt a tug on her right hand. She pulled it from the water to find it bleeding from a severe wound that extended up most of her forearm.
"She didn't really know what happened," Cathy Gaffney, Kershner's grandmother, said. Gaffney said a shark had bitten her.
Timing was on her side as Kershner was rushed from the water at about 4:20 p.m. by her family onto the beach near the Shipyard Plantation beach club where a medical student on vacation happened to be there, Gaffney said.
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The man helped Kershner immediately by using a lanyard as a tourniquet until emergency personnel arrived.
"She said she was scared," Gaffney said.
"He told her to take deep breaths, and that it was OK to be scared."
Kershner, of Atlanta, was treated on the scene by the Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Service and Hilton Head Fire & Rescue before she was airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.
Officials were unable to confirm whether Kershner's injury was caused by a shark, but said that it seemed consistent with a shark bite.
Gaffney said Kershner's wounds extended the length of her arm.
Her granddaughter suffered torn tendons and veins and was "bitten to the bone," Gaffney said. She has undergone two surgeries since the incident.
Kershner's family was visiting Gaffney, who lives on Hilton Head Island, as they do every year, she said.
Hours after the incident, Kershner was released from the Savannah hospital and taken to a hospital in Atlanta.
She faces at least three months of healing and possibly two years of rehabilitation, Gaffney said.
"She's very calm and very good-spirited," Gaffney said.
Mike Wagner, operations manager for Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Service, said Thursday lifeguards clear swimmers out of the water for sharks on a "pretty routine basis."
"It seems like a lot of times when we see them, they are in shallow water," Wagner said.
Wagner said he followed a 4-foot shark in ankle-deep water Thursday from Folly Field Beach Park to Islander's Beach Park.
"I think the sharks are there," Wagner said. "People just don't generally see them. I think they are generally not interested in us."
Though Kershner wasn't lucky enough to be ignored by the shark, Gaffney attributes her granddaughter's recovery outlook to the quick actions of those who came to her aid.
Gaffney said she never learned the name of the medical student whose fast response helped slow the bleeding.
"We feel, in spite of the trauma, that she was protected in many ways by the Lord," Gaffney said.
Follow Caitlin Turner on Twitter at twitter.com/Cait_E_Turner.