Achmat had to cut 18 seconds off his 100m butterfly time to meet the Olympic qualifying time of 1 minute 3 seconds. It is an incredible achievement considering that shaving even one second off your race time takes hours and hours of training. His not only qualifying for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but coming ninth, was an extraordinary feat for any sportsman. Achmat followed this by cruising into the butterfly and freestyle finals at the 2010 World IPC swimming championships in Holland and setting all Africa records. This year at the Midmar Mile, he tested his mettle against 200 swimmers amongst them Duzi canoeists and Iron Man competitors and won the event. He has set his sights on winning a medal at the 2012 Olympics. Achmat is both driven and humble. It comes as no surprise that his sponsors Foot Gear and Mitsubishi have been right behind him.
Achmat Hassiem, not only recovered from a near fatal shark attack and qualified to swim in the Paralympics in Beijing two years later but found himself championing the rights of his attacker and setting his sights on the 2012 Paralympics. Kathy Malherbe finds out why and how he survived.
On the 13th August 2006, Achmat Hassiem, sat in a meeting of the executive of False Bay Lifesaving Club watching his ‘team’ including his brother, Taariq, doing drills. He was itching to join them. Despite the overcast sky, the ocean was crystal clear. There was a slight swell but no chop. Perfect for practising mock rescues on the club’s rubber duck. As his meeting finished Achmat joined the group for a multiple patient pickup – a familiar exercise for the team. Achmat says, “Taariq was to be the unconscious patient, Nic Pemberton the patient injured in the shoreline and I was the struggling swimmer. We were about 200 metres offshore and the whistle blew for the exercise to start.” Nic was collected first, then it was Achmat’s turn… he was in about two metres of water – just over his head – with Taariq a little further out at three and a half metres. “We chatted as we trod water waiting. I even remember cracking a few jokes about shark attacks as we waited to be ‘rescued.’”
“The rubber duck was fairly close when I saw something out of the corner of my eye – it was a black shadow moving towards my brother. My first thought – a seal or dolphin. I sculled the water, lifting my head to get a better look. At that point a huge dorsal fin emerged from the water. It was darkish grey and cutting at an angle towards Taariq. For a few seconds I went still. Numb. Then I screamed at the lifeguards in the boat telling them to pass me and pick up Taariq. I shouted at Taariq, ‘Shark!’ while banging on the water to distract it. At the same time, I saw Taariq scrambling into the boat, and the huge shadow and the fin turn and head straight towards me. The fin submerged, I couldn’t see a thing. There was an incredible sense of quiet. An eeriness. As if the whole world was suspended in that moment.
“If I stretched out my feet I realised I could just touch the sand so I made myself as tall as possible. I remembered seeing pictures of the way in which sharks attack seals – approaching them from underneath.”
In the face of the circling 4.5 metre Great White, Achmat was thinking with bizarre clarity.
THE MIND OF THE PREDATOR
Alison Kock, principal scientist with the Save Our Seas Shark Centre and Shark Spotters says, “our research has shown that sharks don’t treat humans the same way they do seals and each attack is different. We have not evolved with the shark as a source of food like normal prey, which is why over 70% of attacks are ‘bite and release.’ They case the joint, curious. And confident. As apex predators they have no reason to fear anything in the sea.” Attacks on humans are rare and fatal attacks even more so…. Kock says, “When you consider that there were only six fatal shark attacks globally during 2010, the theory for curiosity and investigation is more likely.”
THE MIND OF THE PREY
So how did he have such clarity of thinking in the face of one of man’s most hyped up and feared scenarios? Mike Webber a psychologist in Cape Town, specialising in trauma counselling says, “Achmat’s reaction is not atypical. The response for the survival of the species – the fight or flight syndrome is hard-wired into our brains – a genetic wisdom from the days of fighting off the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger. The mind and body react together for survival. Of course, we don’t all react as logically and with such clarity as Achmat did in this crisis. It depends on your perception of the situation. Whether you think you have a chance of survival or if you think like a victim. Achmat obviously had an innate sense of competence. An ‘I can possibly win’, on a primitive level. There is of course, huge fear. But fear is good. It increases your fight for survival. Courage is not the lack of fear but the ability to face it.”
“The shark surfaced right in front of me. I looked straight into its black, black eyes. It felt very, very personal. But it didn’t attack immediately. First I was knocked. I tried to roll myself along his body which felt like coarse sandpaper covering solid unforgiving muscle. It felt like a tank. As I rolled myself along the body the shark’s fin hit me and I went into a spiral. I tried reverse sculling but the tail jerked itself across me. I think this precipitated the attack. I instinctively knew I had to get away from the mouth and decided that the best place to be was on the shark’s back away from its jaws.”
Achmat knew he was fighting for his life.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT(parallel side bar)
Webber explains how the fight or flight reaction had been activated in his brain compelling him to fight back. He says, “The centre which responds to stress in his brain was activated – called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis fires off its ammunition. Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. The adrenaline increases heart rate by irritating the cardiac muscle so it beats stronger, stimulates blood flow by dilating the vascular system and striated the muscle – increasing muscle readiness. Achmat’s body would also have released energy from glucose and glycogen, his pupil’s would have dilated to increase visual acuity and made him more aware of his surroundings. It would also have boosted his cognitive ability. His body was primed. Ready to fight…”
He would react faster. Think faster. Be stronger.
The turmoil in the water made the lifeguards in the boat realise what was happening and they started screaming. Achmat says he can’t begin to describe the emotions he was feeling at that time. “You are in the presence of the raw power of nature – it is something you can’t really put into words. As it came at me I saw a window of opportunity. The shark ‘closed its eyes’ as it moved in.”
“In that split second I thought, ‘this is an opportunity to get on top of the shark,” says Achmat. “I thought I would make it until I tried to lift my right leg. I realised that my leg at the shin was in the vice-like grip of the shark’s mouth.” The pressure of a Great White’s bite measured by a shark bite meter – called a gnathodynamometer – can be as much as 3 tonnes per inch. “There was no way I could get away,” says Achmat. “It started shaking me violently. I tried to move with the rhythm of the shaking so that my leg wouldn’t break. I felt absolutely no pain just discomfort at the awkward angle.”
THE SHUT DOWN (parallel to main story)
According to Kock sharks don’t in fact close their eyes but roll them back into the sockets as a protective measure when they are less confident.
“The surprising absence of pain is common with traumatic injuries like bullet wounds. stabbings and in this case. a shark’s teeth embedded in your shin bone,” says Webber. “The body would have produced opiodes – natural painkillerss similar to morphine. In a fight-or flight-situation you can’t be crippled by pain, you need to fight to survive so your perception of pain is suppressed.”
“I tried to punch the shark around the head,” says Achmat. “It was like punching an armoured tank – it made no impression except on my hands which were being lacerated on the coarse skin….” It was at this point that the shark started to dive and move in the direction of seal island. Achmat’s fight under the water was desperate – he was running out of air and realised that he would not be visible from the surface. The lifeguards on the rubber duck were in fact scanning the sea for any sign of movement. There was not even a ripple. Only deathly silence. Below the surface Achmat fought his solitary battle.
With his right leg trapped in the shark’s jaws, his 2-metre body twisted and parallel to the sharks, he was dwarfed. The shark’s massive body zig-zagged through the water .
“I was flung around in a regular rhythm. Connecting. Bumping. Scraping. I remember clearly how the colours changed as I was rolled around, first the sharks’ white underbelly, then a bluish colour and then dark grey then the white underbelly…I felt like a ragdoll. It was uncomfortable. I tried to twist round and poke its eyes but couldn’t get close enough. I did see a huge, recent scar which I managed to get my fingers into. I worried the wound – trying to inflict enough pain for it to let go. It didn’t. At first the surface was glassy and light from below, familiar, like being submerged in a bath with your eyes open. Then the shark dived deeper.
I thought the game was over. But as I went down, I told myself, ‘No, you’re not going to die now’ and started kicking at the head with my free leg and kept kicking. There was still no pain. It was just this brute power, this massive brute force against me, against nothing.
“I didn’t give up because millimetre by millimetre I could feel the teeth sliding down the bone. My lungs were screaming.”
THE BODY SHUT DOWN (PARALLEL NARRATION)
As Achmat’s bloodstream became saturated with CO2 and his oxygen ran out, his respiratory centre, the most primitive part of his brain reacted instinctively.
THE FINAL MINUTES
“My chest heaved involuntarily a few times and then I felt this excruciating sensation as I inhaled salt water into my lungs.” Choking and his lungs on fire he realised his time was running out and instead of kicking, he pushed as hard as he could with a last adrenaline- fuelled rush of energy against what he describes as the ‘titanium tank of a head’.” Suddenly he heard two loud pops like a rubber band snapping. He was free. “I started to swim towards the surface, desperate for air, but I just couldn’t find the energy….I was exhausted as if I had run five marathons. I just couldn’t!”
Just below the surface of the water, Achmat felt himself start to sink slowly.
“The ‘pop’ I heard was the sound of the shark breaking off the bone in my leg – my expensive passage to freedom. But I had no reserves to get to the surface.”
SURVIVAL MODE (parallel side bar)
Dr Roy Endenburg the surgeon at Constantiaberg Hospital responsible for Achamat’s amputation says, “When the lower part of Achmat’s leg was bitten, the adrenaline would have caused the vessels to go into spasm and the capillaries and peripheral vessels draw into the tissue to slow down blood loss but he was still in trouble.” The loss of blood pressure would have resulted in shock. There is not enough profusion – not enough oxygen going to vital organs and minor vessels. This haemmorhagic or hypovolemic shock is extremely dangerous.
“I knew it was my last chance but I just could not get to the surface,” says Achmat. “I was about two feet under the water. Then I heard the noise of the rubber duck’s engine. As I looked up I saw what looked like a hand trailing quite deeply in the water.” It was Taariq, leaning over the side of the boat trawling for Achmat or his body. Taariq had seen a shadow and leaned right over the boat to grab it unable at that stage to tell what it was …. the shark or his brother. He was prepared to risk losing his arm for his brother. “He pulled me up and the first thing I did was grasp onto the side of the boat and try to gasp for air.’
Taariq grabbed his body and hauled him into the rubber duck just as Achmat saw the dark shadow of the shark coming towards the boat at speed. The shark banged the boat a few times. Later the lifeguards agree that it was only their combined weight that stopped the boat from capsizing. “Tariq dived on top of me – to stop me from seeing my injury – I had no idea that the bottom part of my leg was missing.
“We raced back to shore. I remember someone screaming at the instructor on the beach to get the shark attack pack and to call the paramedics. As we hit the shoreline Richard, my instructor, grabbed me and started bandaging my leg. ‘You know the drill,’ he said ‘we have to get you onto the stretcher, so work with me.’ All this time my brother stayed on top of me, shielding me from my leg.
“I remember very clearly a fisherman walking up to the boat and looking in at me, just before Richard got there. He just put his hands over his face and said, “no ways, no ways” before turning and walking away. For the first time I started to wonder what had happened although I still thought I just had severe lacerations. I remember the noise clearly, the Sunday craft market, the screeching…police cars, ambulances, paramedics, the helicopter, Taariq on the phone to my parents, my mom crying… It felt as if there were a high state of confusion. People standing with their hands over their mouths, the club chairman trying to give me water. As the paramedics carried him to the helicopter, he says, he felt ‘ok’. I was just worried for my family…”
One famously poignant picture shows him being carried on the stretcher giving the thumbs up
After being airlifted to Constantiaberg Hospital, Achmat was operated on almost immediately. Dr Endenburg says the first operation was to stop bleeding, tie off vessels with stitches or cauterise them. “The nerves are cut off cleanly as they will be less painful than ragged nerve endings.” Achmat woke up in ICU with his brother Taariq at his side. Taariq was crying. “He thanked me for saving his life and said he wished that it hadn’t happened to me. I said “what?” Taariq told me to look at my right leg… I could see a bump and feel my feet but couldn’t lift it…. It was then that it hit me.”
The first three nights were a jumble of nightmares as Achmat relived the attack over and over… “I would wake up screaming and sweating…”
My brother didn’t leave my side once. I needed him. Then slowly the realisation that I’d lost a leg, the reliving of the attack, the phantom pain. Then the devastating realisation that I would never be able to fulfil my lifelong dream of representing South Africa as a sportsman.
Three days later, Achmat had the amputation which would ready his leg for a prosthesis. This involved amputating higher up and preparing a muscle flap to hold the prosthesis. It was after this that his brother tentatively suggested he could represent his country at the Paralympics With the same determination Achmat showed in the water with the shark, he decided he would swim for his country after all. “Most people would have accepted their time,” says Dr Endenburg, “but not him.”
IN THE DEEP END
Achmat’s recovery started with him facing his demons, first on Muizenberg beach – a ‘huge hurdle’ and one he tackled the day after he was released from hospital. “I was surrounded by family, friends and the crew and it was a bitter sweet moment. I broke down as I looked out to sea. I could hear the screams, see the crew, I relived the moment. Completely. The realisation that I could have died out there was overwhelming. Then two months later, I joined my friends in the swimming pool at Muizenberg High School. At first I was terrified. I panicked and grabbed the closest person to me. The captain of the lifeguards lifted Achmat’s two metre frame out of the pool. “I sat and watched them train, until I had the courage to get in again. Slowly. Reassuring myself all the time… it’s just a pool. Eventually I eased into the water and started doing gentle strokes and then I managed to put my head under the water.”
It’s a classic treatment in the case of post traumatic stress, re-introduction to stimulus slowly to become accustomed to and overcome the fear. Achmat’s biggest hurdle though, was getting back into the sea… He did this surrounded by veteran long distance swimmers, amongst others, Theodore Yach and Andrew Chin – who encased him in a cocoon of protection in the water.
“The feel of the salt water on my face, the salt in my mouth, the waves, was like doing a time warp. I was neck deep and terrified,” says Achmat. “At one point I saw a rock and grabbed onto the swimmers around me in panic.”
In May 2010 Achmat swam from Robben Island to Blouberg. – an incredible achievement – emotionally and physically.
Supported by the staff at the Sports’ Science Institute, his swimming coach Brian Button and huge motivation by paralympic swimmer and friend, Natalie du Toit his goal is to win medals in the 2012 Olympics.
His website slogan says. ‘Swim. Win. Motivate.’ It would just be a neat and catchy slogan if mouthed by an everyday motivational speaker. From Achmat Hassiem, it’s a survival war-cry.
Many shark attack survivors become advocates for their protection. “One of the most difficult hurdles’ says Achmat, ‘ was being taken out to Seal Island by Alison Kock to a shark tagging and research project. “I couldn’t sleep the night before,” says Alison, “I was worried about him and his reaction.” But despite an initial period where Achmat stayed in the middle of the boat – very, very wary – the trip was a huge success. Achmat says, “The first time I saw a shark it was insane! Exciting. Like bungee jumping. But Nerve racking. You know when you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
However, Alison says Achmat shrieked with delight as a shark breached in front of them. “We moved closer and closer to the sharks and I could see Achmat’s perspective of the Great White changing before my eyes.” Achmat was busy recording data for Alison and getting a turn at the wheel of the boat (which in retrospect was a ruse to keep him busy). “I even named a shark – a 3 metre male I called ‘Scarlet’ (in honour of a fresh scar).” Alison says Scarlet arrived at 09h48 and interacted with them until 11h00. “The other four sharks we recorded that day stayed around for less than five minutes. Scarlet was clearly as enamoured with Achmat as he was with it.
“It was a totally different perspective” says Achmat, “they are actually giant calm creature. I wanted to see more… I developed a huge and new respect for these creatures in their natural environment.”
In October 2010 Achmat together with eight other shark attack survivors, from five countries, appealed to the United Nations to adopt measures to protect sharks. The survivors-turned-advocates of conservation at the UN headquarters collectively say: “The Great White is a fearsome predator, but sharks aren’t the fabled man killers that the movie Jaws depicts. They have a right to live just like any other creature, including ourselves.”
First appeared in Private Edition