Unnamed Heroes

A shark bite survivor reflects on the people – and blood donors – who saved him.

“Hold my ankle!”

Steve Bruemmer heard the command but struggled to comply. Issued by a stranger, repeatedly, the words were out of focus, fleeting. Hold my ankle. Yet Steve knew he had to try; his life depended on it. Facedown on a surfboard, he reached for the stranger’s ankle as his body floundered. A froth of bloody seawater churned around him, while somewhere – below? nearby? – the great white shark that had bitten him only moments before lurked beneath the surface.

“It’s very, very rare that great white sharks bite humans, so I was quite unlucky to have been bit, but very lucky in that I didn’t die.”

Lover’s Point Beach. Photo courtesy of Steve Bruemmer; editorial use only.

June 22, 2022 was a splendid California summer day. Blue skies and a calm, clear sea beckoned for an open water swim. An experienced swimmer and athlete, Steve, 62, donned his wet suit and set out from Lover’s Point Beach in Pacific Grove for an out-and-back, one and half mile swim. Paddleboarders, beach goers, and a small group of surfers learning water safety dotted the area.

A mere 150 yards from shore on the return leg of his swim, a 15-foot, 2,000-pound Great White shark pummeled him with a bomb-like blast so forceful that he didn’t immediately register he’d been bitten. Likely mistaking him for a seal, the shark had sliced into both of Steve’s thighs and abdomen, delivering near-fatal injuries that rendered him unable to swim.

“After I was bit, I tried to float on my back and looked at my legs. Where there should’ve been wet suit and skin, there was just red.”

A volunteer with the Monterey Aquarium, Steve is deliberate with his choice of words: the shark bit him, it did not attack him. There is no lingering resentment, and he chalks up his encounter to bad luck. Yet the uncanny string of the right people in the right place at the right time that all aligned to save his life that day can only be described as incredibly good luck.

The paddleboarders – a vacationing couple from Folsom, in town to celebrate their anniversary – heard Steve’s cries for help, as did several of the surfers on the beach. One surfing instructor, Heath, grabbed his board and a spare board and immediately paddled out to Steve.

“As Heath approached me, he was looking around for a shark and could see, as he put it, a ‘cloud of blood’ around me, about the size of a car. I was bleeding profusely.”

The route snapshot from Steve’s Strava that day. The yellow arrow denotes where he was bitten. Photo courtesy of Steve Bruemmer; editorial use only.

Heath helped him up onto the spare board and instructed Steve to hold onto his ankle while he paddled them both back to shore. The Folsom couple – Paul and Aimee – had also paddled over to help. Paul, a police officer, dialed 9-1-1 from his paddleboard; Aimee, a nurse, helped Steve.

“Aimee recognized that I was going to fall off the board, I couldn’t control my legs. She jumped off her paddle board and onto the back of my surfboard to hold my legs and help paddle us to shore. Blood is pouring off me, the water is red; she thought she was chumming the water with her own legs.”

Once on shore, with paramedics en route, Steve’s luck continued: of the beach goers, one was a physician and two were ICU nurses. They wasted no time cutting off Steve’s wet suit and securing three makeshift tourniquets. Fading in and out of consciousness, Steve was deathly pale; Paul tried and failed to find a pulse as the ambulance arrived.

Steve was transported to Natividad Hospital, a Level II Trauma Center in Salinas, California. Within 19 minutes of his arrival, he was in surgery. His internal temperature was 91 degrees. He would go on to spend a total of three weeks at Natividad, including time in the ICU. Remarkably, he suffered no broken bones, internal bleeding, or organ damage. Miraculously, the shark missed his pelvic iliac artery by millimeters, skirting certain death.

In addition to a skilled medical team, 33 units of blood helped save his life.

“I knew I was very, very badly hurt and there was a lot of blood. I didn’t connect that with ‘Oh I’m going to need blood’ but I knew I was in grave danger of dying.”

Recovering at Natividad Hospital. Photo courtesy of Steve Bruemmer; editorial use only.

When asked if he’d been a blood donor prior to the shark bite, Steve responded “No, I’d given blood a couple of times before, but I was not a regular blood donor.” He’s quick to add, slightly chagrinned, “That’s a mistake that I will rectify going forward.”

According to the American Red Cross, a 150-180 lb. adult will have approximately 1.2-1.5 gallons (or 10 units) of blood in their body, comprising approximately 10 percent of an adult’s weight. Having arrived at Natividad nearly exsanguinated, Steve was in dire need of a transfusion. During his hospital stay, he would receive 13 units of plasma, 18 units of packed red blood cells and two units of platelets. The experience has changed his perception of blood donation and blood donors.

“I was lucky in that anonymous, good Samaritan blood donors had done the selfless work of giving of themselves to save a stranger.”

In the U.S., the need for blood is constant with someone needing blood on average every two seconds. The blood supply is nearly always chasing demand, as, like Steve used to, many Americans don’t make blood donation a priority in their day-to-day lives. In recent years, largely due to upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations like the Red Cross have faced blood shortage emergencies and struggled to motivate the public to roll up their sleeves when lockdowns were prevalent and open blood drives were scarce. Even today, when much of American life has found its post-Covid pace, it can still be a challenge to stock the shelves with an adequate supply of blood and blood products. Steve wants to change that and is using his story to inspire others into action.

The October picnic featuring the to-scale cutout of the shark that bit Steve. Photo courtesy of Steve Bruemmer; editorial use only.

“I have a great support system – just unmatched.”

Following his ordeal in June, Steve’s family, friends and community rallied around him, delivering meals, offering support, and in August, donating at a Red Cross blood drive in his honor. Later in October, Steve and his wife Brita hosted a thank-you picnic for everyone who played a part in his rescue and recovery: the Natividad medical staff, friends, family, church members, members of his running, swimming and cycling groups. In all, about 200 people turned out for Steve and Brita; also in attendance was a to-scale cardboard cutout of the great white shark. In a group photo from that day, the cutout is held up in front by nine people. It is an enormous animal.

During the picnic, Steve asked the group how many were blood donors.

“Lots and lots of hands went up,” he recalled. He followed that up by asking those with their hands raised how many had given five or more gallons of blood. Three hands stayed up, including Steve’s brother-in-law.

Now more than six months later from that fateful day, Steve continues to make steady progress with his recovery. He attends physical therapy twice per week and is navigating the transition from using special leg braces to walking with supportive poles. His muscles have healed and are getting stronger; his nerves will take longer to recover. That he was in excellent shape before the incident has proven to be a huge advantage for both his survival and recovery. Still, Steve credits his rescuers, the Natividad medical team and the anonymous blood donors for making his survival possible.

Steve smiles during a break while on a walk; he continues to get stronger as he recovers. Photo courtesy of Steve Bruemmer; editorial use only.

“The unnamed heroes these days, in most trauma cases, it’s the blood donors,” he said.

A second blood drive in Steve’s honor is scheduled for January 12 in Pacific Grove. The three then-strangers who pulled him to safety on June 22, Heath, Paul and Aimee, will be recognized at the drive with Lifesaving Awards on behalf of the Red Cross for their heroism. Steve will be in attendance, and he hopes he’ll be cleared to donate blood – his first donation following the shark bite, and hopefully one of many donations he plans to make moving forward.

When asked what he’d tell someone considering making a blood donation, he paused for a moment.

“It’s easy to say, ‘It could be you.’ You should donate blood because some day you might need it. But that’s not the right answer.” He paused again.

“We are best when we take care of each other, when we come together as a community, take care of each other, and love one another,” he said, emotion giving his voice a husky depth. “We do that when we give blood. I can’t think of a more tangible, meaningful, important way of caring for each other.”