USD Law Student Recovering After Shark Attack in Puerto Rico

One in 11.5 million. 

Those are the odds, according to the University of Florida International Shark Attack File, of being bitten by a shark. But despite those odds, that’s exactly what happened to USD law student Lydia Strunk, when off the coast of a remote island in Puerto Rico, she was bitten on her lower right leg by what many believe was a six-foot tiger shark this past August 16, 2011.

Strunk, a 3L, was visiting a friend in Puerto Rico for a few days of relaxation before returning to San Diego to start her last year of law school.  On the tail end of her vacation, she decided to go solo on a visit to the island of Vieques, a small island that was, until 2004, home to a United States military testing base.

On one of the last nights of her trip, she joined a tour group that would kayak out to a local bay that was home to a large concentration of microorganisms that lit up when they were distressed.  A few of Lydia’s friends had participated in this excursion before, and she was eager to see what it was like for herself.

As the viewing was best in the dark, Lydia and about 18 other kayakers paddled out a quarter-mile, in the dead of night, during a thunderstorm.

“I thought I was going to get struck by lightening, if anything,” she said from her home in Ocean Beach.

USD Law 3L Lydia Strunk

When the group was well within the concentration of microorganisms, the tour guide tied the kayaks together so the group could get into the water and swim.  About ten people, including Lydia, decided to get wet, and rest remained in their kayaks.

“It was really cool,” Lydia said.  “Those microorganisms were really cool.  “They (the guides) gave us a little spiel about the organisms and told as that the only thing we had to worry about were jellyfish, but ‘Don’t worry because we have vinegar.’”

Then Lydia heard a few words that no swimmer wants to hear in the dark of the night.  “This person swimming right next to me was like, ‘Dude, did you feel that?’” she said.  “Just right after he said that, I felt something crash into me.” Along with the collision of some sort, she was also briefly jerked lower into the water.  She wasn’t sure what had just happened, and her leg hurt, though not that much.

“Then I immediately pulled up my leg up and saw that it was shredded.”

Strunk quickly lifted herself into the kayak as chaos ensued all around her.

“The little girl sitting next to me is screaming and people start panicking in the water.”

 Once in the kayak, the tour guides swung into action.  They put a tourniquet around her leg and paddled as fast as they could back to shore, where they put her in the company van and sped off to the emergency room.  “Once people started to act, I was a little bit more calm,” Strunk said.  “The emergency response was impeccable.”

Unfortunately, Strunk’s journey was only just beginning.  Once at the local hospital, doctors told her that they were not equipped to handle her injuries, which consisted of two large, distinct flesh wounds on her lower right leg, one just below the knee and another on her shin, approximately ten inches apart.  The medical staff told her that she must fly to San Juan, a 20 to 25 minute flight from the Vieques airport. 

Doctors gave morphine to Strunk and then sent her in a small plane to the capital, where she had to wait on the tarmac for an ambulance to arrive.  After 15 minutes, Strunk grew concerned that there was no ambulance coming.  She asked the pilot to find out what was going on.  He left the plane and went into an airport office.  It was at this point when Strunk, all alone, with only a bikini and no ID, cell phone or shoes, was most scared.

“I was sitting in the plane, on a body board, just trying to keep my composure.”

Finally, after waiting a total of 30 minutes, the ambulance arrived, taking her to her second hospital of the night.

This hospital did not have an open room for her, so Strunk spent the night in the hallway with her friend, who had met her at the second hospital, before she was to have surgery the next day.

Interestingly, before surgery, the doctors asked her what music she would prefer to have on before being anesthetized.  She chose reggae, and as she was wheeled into the operating room, none other than Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” came on.

 Strunk thoroughly appreciated her doctors in San Juan.  Upon first sight of her wounds, one doctor even joked, “Oh, it’s probably just a barracuda!”

Once the surgery began, doctors reattached four tendons and a nerve during an hours-long procedure.  She stayed in the hospital for a week, enduring pain, an uncertain future, and Hurricane Irene.

 “It (the storm) was really big,” she said.  “But the hospital has backup generators, so they came on.”  The island’s power did go out, though the hospital’s generators kicked in.  Nurses also told her that they might have to move her bed away from the windows, though they never had to.

Strunk will spend six weeks in a cast and then start her physical therapy.  The Idaho native, who also attended USD as an undergraduate, has now had almost a month to look back and reflect.

“There was an article in Puerto Rico that was about things that you could do to avoid an attack,” she said.  “And one of them was ‘Don’t wear shiny things in the water,’ and I had this bling-bling bikini on and this bracelet.  It (Vieques) has been touted as a place like, ‘We don’t have sharks,’ but they’re there.”

Strunk was—unbeknownst to her at the time—breaking Puerto Rican law when she swam in the bay.  “It’s actually illegal to swim in this bay because of ecological conservation,” she said.  However, “everybody swims.  We were encouraged to swim.”

Nevertheless, Strunk remains grateful to those who helped her in her extreme time of need.  “I just really appreciate the response I got from them (the tour group).”

And what will Strunk take away from this experience?

“I’ve got a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, you’re such a survivor, it’s such a miracle,’” said Strunk, as she shook her head in disagreement.

“It’s a big deal, but it happens.  It’s a shark bite.  I know it sounds weird saying that, but really, I’m OK, thankfully.  I totally feel lucky.  This is, I guess, part of my plan.  It happened, I’m not going to let myself go ‘why me?’”

Strunk also credits her faith in dealing with this ordeal.  “It (my faith) was very important to me—my personal relationship with God.  It’s made me realize how personal my spirituality is.”

 And through all of this, Strunk maintains her sense of humor.  She has, despite the seriousness of what happened, named her attacker “Chewy.”  And after all the recent news in San Diego about shark sightings at Mission Beach and La Jolla Shores, “I joke that Chewy’s come to apologize,” she said with a smile.

 Strunk also sincerely appreciates her friends here in San Diego for all they have done to help her.  Because Chewy bit her right leg, Strunk is unable to drive and it is hard for her to move about.  “I’d like to publicly thank Caroline Gillen for driving me around,” said Strunk.  “Everyone’s been super helpful.  The kitchen’s stocked with food.”

 And after all this, most people might expect her to permanently cross Puerto Rico off her list of future destinations, but Strunk intends to return.

 “I still love Puerto Rico and feel very connected to it,” she said.  “My fondness has only grown deeper.”

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