I was volunteering with James Cook University, researching the recovery rate of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef after the last bleaching event at Lizard Island. I’ve been at James Cook University as a student, a researcher, a tutor, guest lecturer, an admin, student rep, you name it, since 2000. Paid work, contract work, volunteer work, anything that needed to be done. On this trip, I was a volunteer, and we were to be working out at Lizard Island for 5 weeks.
(this is the grey reef shark who actually bit me. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts...)
During the third week, I was bitten by a shark, severing the tendons of my dominant (left) arm, ripping out the muscle bed, and generally causing mayhem: 90+ stitches (50+ external, and another 40 internal) worth of damage. After two surgeries and twelve weeks of still-ongoing physical therapy and counselling I have been confronted with a harsh new reality: an internal review by James Cook University and its Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies has decided that since I was a volunteer for this trip, I was therefore not a worker. More than that, I was also not at work. Accordingly, I am not covered by usual worker’s protections, with the upshot that I have footed the costs of and trips to specialists, pain killers, and all the various therapies. I have asked the University to help cover my medical bills, my trips to specialists, and my cost of living as I recover. The University has responded harshly (see the long story below), and the University’s insurer has responded by paying me $555.44, which falls short of the monetary cost so far. I am getting back to work, but it is a long climb back out of this hole, and I now have large debts to pay. The heavy lifting so far has been done by a few friends and family who lent me the extra money I have needed until now to pay rent, eat, continue physical and mental therapy. But it is too few lifting too much, and so I am asking my social network to help catch my fall.
There is a more detailed version of the story below.
Thank you for sharing this.
(this is me in the Royal Flying Doctors Airplane at 18:45 - the bite was at 15:01)
-- the long version --
<< warning: this may be confronting for some people, and links to images get somewhat graphic>>
<<warning: this is long>>
In January this year, I was working with some fellow researchers from James Cook University, studying the extent of Coral Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, trying to understand whether there will be recovery for the reef off Northern Australia.
About 3 weeks into the trip, we were snorkelling at a well-known tourist site, about 60 or 80km offshore. We were feeding cod and red bass. Its a sanctioned activity at the site, and common for tourists and researchers alike to fill a couple hours in an afternoon. During the excitement, one bass took some food, and swam past me, using me as a shelter to evade other fish.
(a school of red bass enjoying their afternoon at Cod Hole)
It all happened very quickly: out of the corner of my eye a grey flash. A blur, really, and a 2m grey reef shark slammed into me. It was all I could to do get my left arm up, defensively, in front of my face. My left hand. My dominant hand. It is normally the dominant hand that gets the most damage. I was lucky to get my arm up in front of my face: the shark would have most likely destroyed my mask and snorkel otherwise.
A quick hit. A big hit. Really hard, maybe like being hit by a car. But underwater. A moment of confusion and disbelief. A thought that, statistically, this never happens. I can tell you now: you have some odd thoughts when you get bit by a shark. I pulled back, and the shark pulled back, and then I was surrounded by blood and fatty tissue floating in the water column. I was snorkelling so I held my arm high out of the water to try and get the electrical impulses of my twitching forearm out of the water so it couldn’t be detected by more sharks. Sharks love nothing more than the pulsing electrical impulses from spasming muscles. My hand curled involuntarily into a ball and I felt the tendons pull up into my arm; all my extensor tendons were severed. I managed to swim over and climb into the boat, and not drop the video camera I was holding in my right hand.
The video footage show that in seventeen seconds, I was out of the water. Yelling to my friends and colleague to get his kids out of the water. Yelling to others to get out. People reacted fast, and I think we were all out of the water within a minute. My friends and colleagues were in shock. I was in shock. Kids were screaming and there was blood and confusion all over the boat. Both boats. Through the confusion, I looked at my arm, where a 40x5cm chunk had been ripped out, flapping open, bleeding, pulsing, and twitching. I remember thinking: how can there be so much subcutaneous fat tissue? I gave it a poke. Yep: fat. I was disappointed, I kind of thought of myself as slim. Not some guy with a 1cm fat layer in the forearms. I looked at my other arm, it didn’t look so fat, and yet, here, on the left, was the proof.
[[[ link to gory photos]]]
We grabbed a sarong and wrapped up my arm; with the adrenaline and the confusion, I forgot there was a first aid kit right behind me. I was calling for someone to get the trauma kit from the other boat, the adrenaline causing me to remember that the other boat had a trauma kit, but not to recognise that the boat we were in did, too. I lay down and a colleague put a tourniquet on me that was to stay there for 3 hours and 45 minutes. The first aid, the tourniquet, the organisation of everyone on the two boats. My second stroke of luck for the day was that even despite the chaos, the people around me managed to keep it together, marshal everyone, get the boats moving, and save me from bleeding out on the deck of a research tinny, 100km out to sea. All in seven minutes. We have a precise timeline because the video camera I was holding while I was bitten by the shark was now sitting on the deck, face down, but still rolling. Recording the voices. The chaos and order. The panic. The screaming.
3 hours and forty five minutes. The first hour was a boat ride, engines red-lining, desperate radio calls from my colleague on the other boat coming over our radio: “Lizard Island Research, Lizard Island Research, Lizard Island Research, this is Kirsty K, Kirsty K, Kirsty K. Over.” This call echoes in my head now, and is one of my most vivid memories of the day. There was no response. We were too far out to sea. No response for at least half an hour of continuous calling. Eventually our distress call was relayed by another vessel, and we were directed to a resort who had an ex-paramedic working. The paramedic retightened the tourniquet, signalling the beginning of what was to be another 2 hours and 45 minutes of agony, screaming, yelling, and uncontrollable pain. The morphine helped for brief moments after each injection - enough to allow me to take a breath- but really, the pain was continuous. An intense, exquisite, excruciating 10 out of 10, and something I never knew could exist. To calibrate the reader, I was given 40mg of morphine over 2 hours and 45 minutes. Typical pain relief is about about 1-2mg per hour. I was 40x above that, and all I could do was complain about the pain. I alternated between using some some bad language and apologising for it during those long hours. Interestingly, my nose was really itchy. I asked everyone to scratch my nose. I alternated between designating a nose-scratcher, and dismissing them as ineffective, rotating through the people in the room, one at a time. Everyone had a scratch. None were up to scratch.
(straight after a hit of morphine I asked someone to take a photo. My mum always told me to smile in photos. Note the nice blue fingers on the left hand, and the minor pool of blood I am in. And the ruined towel. I most likely owe the resort a towel).
At 3 hours and 45 minutes after the shark bite, like a guardian angel, the Royal Flying Doctors appeared. The Doctor walked confidently into the room and unbuckled the tourniquet. My head swam, and after a bit of a spike, the pain dropped, and I could think again. The relief was so immense that I swear I would have married that guy, had he asked. I was to find out later that it was a brave act by the doctor: at 4 hours, enough toxins have built up in a tourniqueted limb that amputation is compulsory. Not a discussion. Not an abstract concept. Compulsory. The reason is that removing the tourniquet causes the built up toxins, mostly potassium, to flood back into the body, directly to the heart, causing massive heart attack. The flying doctor walked the line that day, and it was my third stroke of luck when he made the snap decision that meant I both lived and I kept my arm. They loaded me into the plane, and we flew to Cairns. Special treatment, and I even got to meet the pilot, who appeared pleased as punch to have been my most excellent pilot.
I spent six days in Cairns hospital, in the care of the amazing nurses and surgeons in the orthopaedics ward. The sense of humour of the nurses, and their compassion, really kept me going. The opiates helped, too, but the nurses were caring and grave when needed, but without undue sympathy or pity, and they used humour and a great attitude to keep me occupied, and focussed on the positives. Hey, I was alive, after all!. My mum, my sister, my girlfriend, and one of my best mates all flew to Cairns to spend time with me in hospital. An aunty sent chocolates, and myriad friends and relatives sent messages, and love, and kept me talking and chatting through the times when, despite the opium fog, I couldn’t sleep, and I was alone, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
The surgery happened in two parts: on the first night, the surgeon removed 22 teeth-marks along the underside of my arm. Each teeth-mark a site for bacterial infection that comes with a bite. It removed what would have been the coolest scar, but I won’t be complaining that I dodged septicaemia. The top of my arm that had been ripped open, where the muscle bed had been ripped out, and the tendons severed, remained open for four days, waiting for any infection to declare itself before I was put back on the surgery list to have the tendons repaired, the muscle packed back in, and the plastics work done. On the fourth day, as I was prepping for surgery, a person came in with a more urgent need for surgery: he was bitten by a crocodile, and required all the attentions of the orthopaedic surgeons. I was triaged back to the next day (so I guess that answers that question). The next day, the tail of a cyclone came through Cairns, knocking motorcyclists over, and causing car accidents, and so I was moved back again, but eventually, they put me back together, and the pain came roaring back. Surgery hurts. The nurses and my friends, family, and girlfriend kept me going.
(there is me, ready for my second surgery. I couldn't crop the photo to fit my smile in)
The hour-long boat ride, the hours in the first aid office, the flight, and the hospital stay seem a long time ago now. The surgeons have patched up the hole in my arm. Reconnected the tendons. But I don’t have full use of my hand: the scar tissue has bound the tendons tight. Every day I massage the scar to break the scar tissue, and try to free the tendons. If, in three more months, I am unable to pull the tendons from the scar, I will need another specialist surgery. My strength is building, and my left hand has one-quarter of the grip strength of my right. This is the physical trauma, and only time will tell whether I need more surgery, whether I will regain full use, or full strength in my hand.
(here is the splint I wore for two months while the tendons knitted)
But more damage has been done than just that.
I’ve lost the ability to do my job: I’m a reptile biologist, and this means using my hands to catch animals that can be dangerous if you are clumsy or slow or weak. I’ve lost money: I’m in debt for medical expenses: pain relief medication, hand therapy, flights to specialists, for psychological treatment of acute trauma, I’ve spent all my savings, and plenty of other people’s savings, on the cost of living for the past three months.
I asked JCU and their insurer to help cover the medical costs while I recuperate. Unfortunately for me, a sealed, internal, investigation by JCU found that as I was a volunteer with JCU, I was neither a worker, nor was I working, and we weren’t at a work site. And, long story short, I am ineligible for typical protections afforded to salaried workers. I am attempting to access this report under the Right To Information Act. At this point the University is seeking to enact some deeper regulations of the act, to charge me for the retrieval of the documents, or to deny my request entirely). Rather than help me recover after I was bitten by a shark while volunteering for them, the University has cut me adrift, denied any participation, wrongdoing, or ownership for the situation. Let me be clear: I never wanted JCU to bow and scrape, or to suffer loss of face, or any such thing. It was a bad situation that lead to a horrible result. Bad decisions were made, which ought not to be made again. Good actions were taken by people who saved my life. I had hoped JCU would help pay my medical bills, at least. Ultimately, I think that people who are Volunteering for research shouldn’t have to end up on GoFundMe to pay for recovery after they’re hurt on a field trip.
(the first unwrapping, you can kind of see my hand is cocked over to the left due to the shortening of all the extensor tendons. You can't see that my little finger is pointing off at some crazy angle. Same issue. It took a few weeks of physio to get it to bend down. Now it wont go up again...)
Because I was taken from the worksite directly to hospital, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHS Qld) is obligated to carry out an investigation into the incident. Because JCU is a government owned institution, they were allowed to conduct the investigation internally. I contacted JCU and told them about the injury, the severed tendons, the potential for damage. That same JCU worker filed a report to WHS Qld reporting there was no tendon, bone, or nerve damage. This same report was filled with information that lead WHS Qld to decide the in no case was anything amiss. There was to be no update in work procedures because, as I have said: we were not at work, and I was not a worker. I am left mildly confused as to what everyone thinks I was doing on the outer Great Barrier Reef, staying at Lizard Island Research Station, accommodated- flown- and fed- by JCU.
(this is the bottom side - it was supposed to be a super cool scar with 22 teeth holes, but the teeth holes were removed as a strip because of the risk of septicaemia. Its quite a neat scar compared to the top one)
Even though the investigation was completed while I was in hospital, a week after I was discharged, I was contacted by an officer of JCU who wanted my statement of the events. He told me it was so I could contribute to the WHS Qld investigation (although the investigation was finished and closed). I asked who the information was for, and told JCU that I was under too many opiates to represent myself properly. He told me me report was ultimately for the JCU legal team. Similarly, over the following weeks, JCU subpoenaed emails of my coworkers on the trip in an attempt to deny me even the status of volunteer, and a psychological assessor, under the guise of offering counselling, approached me. Close questioning revealed she was engaged by JCU legal to assess my level of trauma. JCU was preparing its defences, and I was still under massive amounts of drugs.
(stitches out. One part, top-right of the photo, took about 3 weeks to stop bleeding. In the end, no graft was needed)
Of course, I can now access the details of the case via a Right To Information (RTI) request, at a cost of $48. As the investigation was conducted internally by JCU, and simply signed-off by WHS Qld, I submitted two RTI requests, one to JCU and one to WHS Qld on about March 19, 2018. WHS Qld has returned their results, including documents where JCU claims there was no tendon, nerve or bone damage (I suppose the lost feeling in my arm is just senescence!). JCU, on the other hand has not returned any documents as yet.
Here is why: [this is rambling, so you can just go ahead and skip to the next paragraph if you like]
The RTI application was a standard government form that required: my request, my credit card details, and a witnessed (by Notary Public, or Justice of the Peace) identification. I sent it to JCU in a registered post envelope to make sure I was notified when JCU received the letter. As I put the application in the envelope, I took photos of each page. Instead of writing my credit card details, I wrote that I would pay via telephone (JCU accepts payment by telephone). On the first day of receiving the application, 20 March, JCU notified me my request was non compliant because a) there were no credit card details, and b) I must have a “Certified copy” (in quotes) of my ID. My ID was certified by a Supreme Court Justice, and this caused some confusion for a while, whether my witness, a Supreme Court Justice, was in fact, a notary public (they are). After I paid the fee by telephone, and we agreed that a Supreme Court Justice is a high-enough authority, JCU informed me my application in fact had no identification page at all, and they sent me a photo of my application (with no photo ID page). It is possible that I never included the ID. But, on the other hand, the photos I have of the document, as I was putting it in the envelope, include the ID. It was just unlucky that JCU never received it in the sealed envelope. I emailed the copy of my photos of the document, and they accepted it. On March 23, JCU informed me my request for information on the investigation was too big, and that meant they could deny it at will, unless I narrowed it down. On 26 March, I replied, and narrowed the investigation to a few, targeted offices. On 28 March I received an email: The RTI officer is on holidays until 10 April. Now, in the normal runs of things, the RTI officer’s holiday schedule is of little interest to me, but it seemed so coincidental, and along with the rest of the coincidences, that I considered it might be an important piece of the puzzle to know whether the RTI officer has suddenly decided to go on holiday that day, or if they had been planning it for some time. I replied that I would like to include the RTI officer’s “application for leave” to the request. This was denied by the RTI officer (when they returned from holiday) as being irrelevant. On 17 April, the RTI officer informed me that JCU will try to trigger two further sections of the RTI act: the first being a 10 days extension if external consultancy is required, and the second being they can charge me $7.45 per 15 minutes to retrieve the information in the request. On 26 April, JCU formally notified me of their intent to deny my request, due to the volume of information. According to JCU, there are over 2000 pages of documents associated with the investigation, spread amongst the Legal team, Health and safety, the Secretary, the DVC, the PVC, the chief of staff, the Centre for Excellence, and so on. At this point, the university considers that sending collating this much information would impair the usual function of the university, and so they have issued me a notice of intent to deny my request for information. We’re in negotiations.
[end of ramble]
I might have a persecution complex by now, or it might be that I am actually being persecuted. I obviously can’t tell. Either way, I now spend probably 60% of my time wondering why JCU has been apparently systematically road-blocking my request for this information, claiming that a Supreme Court Justice was not an appropriate document witness, altering the request, denying parts of the request, and now increasing the time limit, adding fees to, and ultimately denying, the request. The unfortunate coincidences of holiday-taking and pieces of paper disappearing from a sealed envelope border on Kafkaesque absurdism. As I continue to recall these events, my anxiety increases, and it has taken me two weeks now to write this section alone. My psychologist is using words like PTSD, perhaps triggered, and certainly exacerbated, by institutional failure to recognise, account, or atone, while simultaneously obstructing, obfuscating, and delaying.
I worked at James Cook University for the majority of the period from 2000 to 2017, as a researcher, as a student, as a volunteer, as a teacher, tutor, guest lecturer, and postgrad student representative. Around 15 years, all told. But on the day of the shark bite, I was a volunteer. James Cook University does not subscribe to Work Cover for their volunteers, instead insuring volunteers through a private insurer who, rather than covering my expenses, has compensated me $555.44, this is to cover only some of the physiotherapy, as their policy strictly does not medicare co-contributed treatment (hence not all of my physiotherapy sessions were paid), the insurance does not cover ambulance in Australia, medicine, psychological therapy, or income loss for volunteers. I’m out of savings, and well into debt. I will not return to full time work for some time. I may never return to active field duty.
My options included suing the University, a drawn-out process, estimated to take at least two years. Law suits are emotionally draining and have with no guaranteed outcome. Aside from that the lawyers get paid: if I win, I might take $60,000. If I lose I am likely to lose $80,000. I want to get back to life sooner than two years, and I doubt I have the mental strength to fight a two year legal fight. I believe the insurance agency ought to bear the cost for the flying doctors, and I believe James Cook University ought not to hang its volunteers out to dry, and yet that kind of justice is out of reach for ordinary people.
The debt I have now is to a few close family and friends. Their help has saved me, but cost them. I want to pay them back, and I want to continue my medical treatment, and I want to get back on my feet. My friends have encouraged me to start a crowd fund page, to ask if I can spread the burden more thinly over more people, to ask everyone I know for help, and so here I am.
a (second) last note:
There are severe ramifications from this turn of events that should interest any student or volunteer of a University in Australia. As a volunteer, I was covered by James Cook University’s student and volunteer insurance policy which the fine print now says “is not a replacement for private health care” and “does not cover any expense that is covered or co-covered by medicare”. This means the volunteer pays the gap, as well as the cost of medication, transport, and living expenses while you repatriate. The insurance policy apparently covers a chauffeur to the hospital, and aromatherapist (these are in the abridged policy: JCU refuses to relinquish a full copy of their policy to me), but not visits to specialists that are or could be co-funded by medicare. Not patient or family transfers. Not taxi rides to the shopping centre while you can't drive yourself or take a bus, not a great many things.
On the end of the day I was saved by my coworkers and by the Royal Flying Doctors. Please take your first aid training seriously. Now I am supported by a few friends and family. And I owe them back.
The monetary side:
I hope to make the money to repay my medical costs and the people who have lent me money. It adds up stupidly quickly given we're in Australia with "universal health care". Its about $20,000. That would put me on even ground. There is a pretty good chance of another surgery soon, so it'll begin again. That's great.
Perhaps someone can share this up to the upper echelons of JCU, and they can realise that helping me would have been far less expensive than they were worried about. Frenetic meetings and a long list of people shirking responsibility or ownership, or even just basic compassion, hiring all those lawyers and implementing all those roadblocks, need never have happened. It would have been easier for everyone, just saying...
If you made it this far: you're an enduro expert. Thank you for reading.
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