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What’s next for the NC teen who lost her leg and more in a shark attack 12 days ago?

A message from shark attack victim Paige Winter

Paige Winter, 17, lost part of her left leg and had her hands damaged when a shark bit her at Atlantic Beach on June 2, 2019. She is recovering at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, NC.
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Paige Winter, 17, lost part of her left leg and had her hands damaged when a shark bit her at Atlantic Beach on June 2, 2019. She is recovering at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, NC.

While his daughter lay in the sand of Atlantic Beach, bleeding and with parts of her hands and left leg missing after a shark attack, Charlie Winter repeated the same three words over and over, too many times to remember, he said on Friday.

“I don’t think I’ve ever told any of my children ‘I love you’ so many times,” Winter, 39, said while he shared the harrowing details of the June 2 attack that nearly killed his daughter, Paige, before leaving her maimed. “I wanted her to know that I loved her.”

Paige Winter, 17, has remained hospitalized at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville since her father carried her out of waist-deep water on Atlantic Beach. He was in the ocean, too, when a shark pulled Paige underneath. At the sight of it, he said, he began punching the animal until its grasp loosened.

Charlie Winter and his daughter’s doctors gathered on Friday to share the chilling story of the attack on Paige and how she survived it. That part of the story, the survival, her father said more than once on Friday, could be attributed to a long chain of unlikely events, each one dependent on the other.

Without any one of them, he and the doctors said, Paige, a student at New Bern High School, likely wouldn’t have survived. Now, she faces between six months and a year of arduous rehabilitation and recovery. She will, in some ways, have to learn how to walk again after she is fitted for a prosthetic limb in the coming days. She will have to learn, too, how to live with diminished use of her hands.

Speaking of his daughter’s spirit, her resilience, Winter said, “She won’t let herself fail. I won’t let her fail.”

He spoke of how calm she was the day it happened, in the aftermath. While he said “I love you” over and over, Paige didn’t panic. She didn’t cry. At one point she asked: “Can I go to the hospital now?” By then, strangers had stopped along the beach to try to help.

Some brought beach umbrella bags, or anything they could think of that might be able to be wrapped around Paige’s injuries in effort to stop the bleeding. One person who walked past happened to have a belt, and Charlie Winter, a paramedic, used that to create a tourniquet.

The randomness haunted him. He wondered how many people ever came to the beach wearing a belt. He tried to keep his mind from wondering what might have happened had that person not been there at that particular moment. That belt helped save his daughter’s life.

“Things just seemed to happen in a very odd way,” said Winter, who paused to collect himself in several moments on Friday.

Charlie Winter got emotional at a press conference on Friday in Greenville, NC when describing how he pulled his daughter Paige from the water at Fort Macon State Park after repeatedly punching the shark that had a grip on her.

During the helicopter ride to the hospital, he said that Paige told the medics: “Don’t be mad. Sharks are good people.” The phrase has becoming something like a motto to her, and one that her family has included in the public statements it has released since the attack.

Blood loss, amputated leg, nerve damage

Before Friday, neither the Winter family nor Paige’s doctors had spoken publicly, outside of prepared statements, about what Paige had endured after the attack. In front of a crowded room lined with cameras, they detailed the story:

How Paige had lost so much blood she needed a transfusion when she arrived at the hospital; how her left leg had been so badly mangled surgeons had no choice but to amputate part of it; how her efforts to fend off the shark led to the loss of the ring and pinky fingers on her left hand, and to extensive nerve and tendon damage on both hands.

Along with sharing details of the surgeries and other medical procedures, the doctors spoke of Paige’s toughness, her will and her positivity. She “demonstrated extreme courage,” said Dr. Eric Toschlog, Vidant’s Chief of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, before adding that she’d been “incredibly resilient.”

Breanna Springer, who has been Paige’s primary nurse, praised what she described as Paige’s patience, resilience and determination. Even in the first days after the attack, when it became clear that Paige’s life would forever be different, Springer said Paige remained upbeat, and that she has remained positive enough to share “the funniest jokes.”

“She puts a smile on my face every single time i walk in the room,” Springer said.

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Paige Winter Courtesy CW Photography

Paige’s injuries and her recovery precluded her from appearing publicly on Friday, a hospital spokesman said. Instead, she recorded a video statement that was played after her father’s opening remarks. In the video, she spoke of how things would be different for her but, in some ways, the same. She’ll be able to walk again, she said, and one day she’ll write again.

In an optimistic tone, she said she was the “same old Paigey.” An animal lover, she spoke of her hope for good to come of her ordeal.

“I think I can transform this into something good for me, and good for sharks, and good for the environment,” said Paige, who added that she’s received support from other survivors of shark attacks, including some survivors who have also lost limbs. “Sharks are still good people, and that’s just the truth.”

‘The hero is’ Charlie Winter

Later, Charlie Winter smiled and said that he shares a different opinion about sharks. Dr. Toschlog surmised that a bull shark attacked Paige. He reiterated that Paige’s plight is especially rare. Worldwide, Dr. Toschlog said, there were 66 unprovoked shark attacks on humans in 2018, and four fatalities.

Even so, he said, “It’s rare here that they’re this severe.” He described the attack on Paige, and the devastation of her injuries, as the worst he’d seen or treated since a series of attacks in 2001 off of the Outer Banks. Asked what ultimately saved Paige’s life, Dr. Toschlog attributed her survival to two factors: “Dad. Tourniquet,” he said.

“We’re just doctors who did our job,” he said. “And frankly the hero is” Charlie Winter.

Winter’s mind often drifted on Friday to thoughts of the people he described as the other heroes — the strangers on the shore who helped extend Paige’s life long enough for her to be transported to a hospital. They were the people who brought things to help stop the bleeding. There was the one walked past and just happened to have a belt.

“Names I don’t know, names I’ll never know,” he said. “Just a link, in a chain.”

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.
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