On Aug. 18, 16-year-old Jimmy “Ulu Boy” Napeahi, a senior at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science Public Charter School, was attacked by a shark while surfing at “Dead Trees” at Pohoiki. Witnesses say Napeahi was “attacked from behind by a ‘gray colored shark, about 8 feet long.’” Suffering from “multiple lacerations and puncture wounds to lower extremities,” Napeahi was reportedly transported to the Pahoa Fire Station, then flown via chopper to Hilo Medical Center. He spent two weeks in the hospital. Following is an interview Napeahi had with Big Island Chronicle editor and publisher Tiffany Edwards Hunt after his release and at the onset of his rehabilitation. This Saturday family and friends will host a Family Fun Day at Pohoiki for Napeahi. Bring a potluck dish and plan to paddle out to “Dead Trees” with Napeahi around 11 a.m., if you plan to attend.
TEH: Are you okay talking about it, first of all?
ULU: Yeah, for sure.
TEH: Last time we spoke you were in the hospital, and I had heard that you had over 180 stitches. And now it’s going around that you had 900 stitches, so what’s the actual — how many stitches did you end up having?
ULU: The actual amount was 180 — over 180, the doctor just stopped keeping track after that. I guess he had so much work to do on my body he couldn’t focus and keep track of the numbers, yeah?
TEH: Did you lose — you obviously walked in here today, you have your mobility back. Did you suffer any muscle loss, or ligament loss?
ULU: I’m definitely in a lot of pain when I walk. But, however, the only thing I lost, really, was muscle. Luckily, muscle can grow and it will just take a little bit of time. But I had no nerve damage. My main artery was hanging out at the time of the incident, but it didn’t pop. So I was safe in that caliber, but it was pretty heavy. I lost a lot of blood. It was crazy.
TEH: I spoke with Dallas O’Shaughnessy — in the hospital you gave props to Dallas for helping to save your life.
ULU: Without Dallas O’Shaughnessy out there, and without his courage and his strength to help me, I wouldn’t have made it today. I would have definitely been six feet under or somewhere scattered in the ocean. But, yeah, my hat goes off to him and his courage and his strength to keep me strong and keep me there and, for all his help, I really appreciate him and his family.
TEH: What about the others who came to your rescue after he got you to shore? Do you know who was there for you?
ULU: I know it was Wendell Figueroa, Junior Ascia, and a few others who I can’t remember because there was a lot going on, and I lost sight by then.
TEH: I read in the Tribune-Herald that, after you got out of the hospital — and I think you were in the hospital for two weeks, right? — your mom took you back to Pohoiki.
ULU: Oh, yeah, my very first day out I took a ride down to Pohoiki. We were driving through the parking lot and I had the gnarliest chicken skin, chills — I didn’t even want to look out the window. But when I sat in the parking lot, it was just really still. I can’t really explain the feeling, but it was just so calm. It was like, ‘Okay, I’m back, I’m here.’
TEH: Do you feel like that was therapeutic for you?
ULU: Yeah, in a lot of ways, mentally it helped me a lot. So I could just visualize what happened. I asked people a lot of questions – where I was, what happened, where I was laying. And just simple little things to go through the whole mental stage, because I strongly believe that, before your healing process, you have to heal your body, then your mind, then your soul, and you’re 100 percent and ready to go.
TEH: You, in the hospital, were having a hard time sleeping — having nightmares. Are you still having nightmares?
ULU: Yeah, I have nightmares every once in a while. I guess it’s only natural for me to have nightmares about sharks and stuff. But I think the only way to face my fears is to go back and sit in the water where I got bit and just face it. You know, just go head-on with my fear and make friends with my nightmare, so I can continue to do what I have done and further my career.
TEH: Have you been in the water at all?
ULU: No, I haven’t been in yet because the drain of the biggest cut is still open. And I’m just waiting till I’m just 100 percent healed. Then I start physical therapy. There were rumors being spread — well, it was actually real — that I was going to go to California, the Hurley Camp, but I figure I’d be more comfortable here at home, working on my muscle strength and my hip movement, and just starting from my bottom up, and totally replace my body and then see a chiropractor to realign the body. And get my conditioning back, my cardio, and just hit the water and hope for the best.
TEH: What have you been doing — I mean, you lived for surf before this happened, so what have you been doing to occupy your time?
ULU: I would be so bored around the house, just wash clothes or fold clothes or clean around, and slowly move around, watch a lot of TV. I just got some homework and I need do that for school because I’m quite behind. All in all, I have been just been hanging out, being really patient, watching a lot of surf movies and just wishing that I could be in the water.
TEH: Poor thing.
ULU: Yeah, it sucks… two more weeks till my thing is healed, and then I can go back in the swimming pool. And start my physical therapy and training.
TEH: Okay, good. You have a physical trainer? Even though you’re not going to Hurley Camp, are they going to help with that cost?
ULU: They’re going through the whole contract deal right now. And they’re writing it out and just speaking amongst the owner, Bob Hurley and the partner Pat O’Connell in California to see where I stand. I guess, they were really — they wanted me, and they were impressed by my surfing stats of contests and stuff… so they definitely put out a front and are willing to help me but I just go through the paperwork and stuff. Right now I have a lot to think about, but after this, once I get back into the water, it’s back to surfing and focusing on things like sponsors and contests and home living and just keep on going.
TEH: Nice. So, Hurley is your main sponsor. Who else do we say that you say that you’re sponsored by?
ULU: Hurley, Da Hui, Basic Image, Stalkit — they shape all my boards, and Judd Lau from Maui, Diesel, and Dakine, hooking me up with all the good gear, and Future Fins, Pancho Sullivan, he’s the sales rep and the company in California, and Timmy Patterson Surfboards in California.
TEH: There’s a lot of people who feel like you’re their hero. So, what do you say to them?
ULU: I just gotta say, never give up on the ocean. For those who do surf in the ocean and live in the ocean day by day know its a really playful area, and we’ve made it our home. But we have to respect that out there we’re in someone else’s territory. And we can’t be afraid of it, we just got to know that it’s there, and respect it. And have fun and don’t give up surfing, because without surfing we’d be all miserable.
TEH: That’s right. Amen for that. What about — you’ve been interviewed by people in recent weeks, and I’m sure you’ve seen their write-ups. What hasn’t been said that you would like to put on the record or add to whatever’s been put out there?
ULU: What hasn’t been said — I don’t know. It’s pretty much been all covered. And I’ve been really satisfied with what they’ve been saying. But just the whole incident and what happened, I don’t know, I just got to deal with it in this society. I don’t know. I just want to thank everyone who helped me, and I am happy to be here.
TEH: There’s been — a lot of criticism with the fire department and the response time with the ambulance. And I actually asked the fire chief about it and he claims it was 19 minutes response time and I was just curious what your thoughts are about it — because you ended up having to get a blood transfusion because you lost so much blood.
ULU: I was out of it already, but my mom was keeping really good track of time of what was going on and the procedure of everything going on. What I understand is, yes, they might have been there at 19 minutes, but it wasn’t to rescue me. It was for the sighting of the shark — which the Air Force helicopter was there flying over. And the ambulance had — I don’t know what was going on — I guess they couldn’t go down the Mango Grove, so they turned around in the Mango Grove and went back towards Kapoho. So, I was laying on the beach for about a half hour before they got there. And when they got there, I lost all my vision. And I knew I lost a lot of blood because of it. So, they threw me in the ambulance, and from the ambulance I went to the fire station. From the fire station they airlifted me to Hilo hospital. And from there they immediately took me into surgery, blacked me out, and gave me a blood transfusion while I was out. And they started working on surgery.
TEH: As far as having experienced this traumatic event and being down at Pohoiki all the time, do you have any recommendations for the Hawaii Fire Department or for the County of Hawaii – if you could bend the mayor’s ear, what would you say?
ULU: I would definitely say, have a substation down there, just to have a quicker response. And, yeah, so there won’t be close calls to tragic events that happen. All in all, things happen for a reason. Time definitely went by and that could be said to be a way of putting them down. However, I’m really thankful that they got me, because without them I wouldn’t be here at all. Still, I’m really thankful.