Jaws of life
Posted on 12 November 2011
Losing part of his leg to a great white shark irrevocably changed the life of Paralympic swimmer Achmat Hassiem. He tells us why he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Words Lisa Templeton
Photographs Cameron McDonald
Achmat Hassiem strides into the coffee shop. Behind him glitters the deep blue sea beyond Muizenberg beach on Cape Town’s South Peninsula – the same place where he was attacked by a 4,7 m great white shark five years ago. But the only clue to all that trauma is a slight limp due to the prosthesis on his right leg, which proudly sports the South African flag.
Achmat (28) is tall and broad-shouldered, with the healthy tautness particular to the very fit, and he has a big, beaming smile. He’s squeezing this interview into his very busy life. He has just returned from an Olympic training camp in Durban and the All Africa Games in Mozambique, where his times pushed him into the top eight para-swimmers in the world. He’s making a brief stop in SA before he jets off to Brazil to compete there. On top of all of this, he’s also studying marketing, and spends much of his time giving motivational talks and training hard for the London Olympics.
‘My mom calls me a jetsetter,’ he laughs, before settling into the story of his loss, horror, triumph and zest for life.
Sunday 13 August 2006 started like many others for Achmat – with him trying to rouse his younger brother Taariq from bed. Achmat was 23 years old and mad about sport. He dreamt of representing Western Province in life-saving, and he planned to spend the day practising his drills. He needed someone to act as a patient, and Taariq was it.
A few hours later the two of them were in the sea, 10 m apart, waiting for the rubber duck to buzz by and pick them up. ‘I remember the day vividly. There were clouds over the sea with patches of light and the water was flat and clear. Treading water, we were joking about sharks and Taariq was singing the Jaws theme music.’ As they heard the rubber duck approaching, Taariq floated face down in the water to act like an unconscious patient. That’s when Achmat noticed a large, grey fin heading straight for his brother.
‘I started to drum frantically on the water to draw its attention away from him, and I was screaming at the guys in the rubber duck to get my brother out of the water.’ Achmat’s diversion tactic worked, and the shark swung round and sliced through the water away from his brother – 4,7 m of apex predator was now heading straight for Achmat.
Knowing that sharks breach when attacking, Achmat sunk and felt it brush by him and thrash as it prepared to turn back towards him. ‘Then it charged at me. I tried to paddle back and I saw its teeth as it lunged at me. I tried to dodge it and parried it away with my hand. I tried to scramble onto the safest place I could think of – the shark’s back – but I couldn’t. I was stuck. When I looked down to see why I couldn’t move, I saw my leg in its mouth.’
Back on the surface, Taariq looked up from the safety of the rubber duck at a sea that was eerily still – there was no sign of his brother. Under the water, the shark was pulling Achmat out to sea. ‘It was pulling so fast that I was flapping at its side and I could see its tail some distance from me. I’m two metres tall, so I knew it was big.’ And all this time, Achmat was fighting it. He describes this as ‘punching a tank covered in sandpaper’. He would later discover that his knuckles were raw and bleeding.
‘I couldn’t get up for air, and I thought I was going to drown. Then I heard a huge crack, and I was free. I shot up to the surface, waved one hand in the air, and that was all I could manage. I started to sink back down.’ But that was all Taariq needed to spot his brother. Achmat could see the vivid red of his brother’s vest and the belly of the rubber duck as it rushed towards him. And then the brothers’ hands clasped each other and Achmat was hauled into the rubber duck – not a moment too soon, as the shark swung around and catapulted into the rubber duck. As the rubber duck whizzed back to shore Taariq lay on top of Achmat to hide his leg and held the wound in one hand. Back on dry land, a helicopter arrived and whisked him to Mediclinic Constantiaberg.
Losing a limb
‘Taariq kept telling me I was alright; it was just a scratch. It was better that I didn’t know just yet that I had lost part of my leg.’ It was only when Achmat had recovered from surgery that Taariq, tears running down his face, told him to look under his covers. ‘I lifted my bed covers and saw that my lower right leg was gone. I stared in horror. My goal was to be a great sportsman and now it was over. I was devastated.’
For two days Achmat languished in despair. ‘I’m so grateful to the nurse practitioners at Mediclinic Constantiaberg. I went through hard times and they were a great help and support.’
Then Taariq said to him, ‘You don’t have to give up on your dreams. Let’s get you swimming-ready for the Paralympics in Beijing.’ A small nugget of hope and determination began to build in him. It took three attempts to achieve the times he needed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics but, just two years after his attack, Achmat walked into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium alongside his Olympic team members.
Getting back on his feet
When Achmat was first shown his prosthetic limb by prosthetist Jayson Chin of The Cape Amputation Clinic, Taariq joked, ‘Chicks are going to dig this.’ But it was a lengthy process as Achmat started rehabilitation. ‘Initially it was weird to do gym with one leg. Simple things like riding the exercise bike were suddenly so hard.’ There were challenges along the way, but his ‘pit crew’ – the team at the amputation clinic – kept giving Achmat new goals and, as his stump shaped and he got fitter, he became excited.
‘Achmat really was exceptional,’ says Jayson. ‘He took his disability by the horns and turned it around. As an able-bodied guy he was good, but he is an exceptional disabled guy and a really good motivator of other amputees.’
About two months into rehabilitation, Achmat went to a vending machine for a packet of chips and took his first unaided steps on his prosthetic leg. ‘I was edging forwards with a packet of chips in my hand, and I was the happiest person in the world.’
And? Do chicks dig it? Achmat flashes his bright smile. ‘Ja, it goes down really well in nightclubs!’
Going for gold
Since the attack, Achmat has captained the Western Province able-bodied swimming team, broken disabled-swimming records and completed the Cadiz Freedom Swim from Robben Island to Big Bay. He’s currently training at least three hours a day for the London Paralympics. ‘That shark changed my life for the best. I could shake it by the fin. I have been honoured by the opportunities I’ve been given and the people I have met.’
Achmat advises people never to give up and to live life to the fullest. With the right attitude you can do so much. ‘Don’t wait for a 4,7 m shark to bite you on the bum. Go out and achieve the impossible. As they say in the Adidas ad, “impossible is nothing”.’
Useful advice from the prosthetist: what you need to know
Jayson Chin of the Cape Amputation Clinic says most amputees can be up and walking within three months by adhering to the following guidelines:
• Start rehabilitation as soon as you are able. Select prosthetic components that suit your needs. Not everyone needs the most expensive prosthesis.
• Make sure you have a supportive medical team. ‘Our team includes a prosthetist, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, an orthopaedic surgeon, a biokineticist and a psychologist.’ Your relationship with your prosthetist will be a long one, as your needs will change over time. Choose someone with a good reputation and to whom you can relate.
• Meet other amputees so that you can support each other. Gear up with as much information as you can.
Contact the Cape Amputee Clinic on 021 531 7232 or visit www.amputee.co.za. The clinic also runs a free consultation clinic every two weeks.
Learning to re-embrace life
Dealing with the loss of a limb is a three-fold process, says clinical psychologist Ronèl de Villiers.
1. You need to deal with the trauma that caused it. Was it an accident? Were you fighting for your life? Was it cancer? Debriefing with a counsellor may help you deal with the shock.
2. You will need to grieve the loss of the limb, just as you would grieve a loved one. Initially one might feel numbness and denial, then anger, regret, bargaining (with feelings of ‘if only’) and depression. Acceptance is the final phase.
3. And then there is the pain, as well as the ‘phantom’ aches and sensations in the missing limb. You may feel a desperate itch in a toe that is no longer there. This is quite normal. Your old body map needs to update itself gradually as the nerve endings heal. It takes a while for the body to adjust to its new form. ‘Don’t be alarmed by this,’ says Ronèl. ‘The amputation does not define who you are. Re-embrace life and become curious about the good that may come from a very tough situation. You are a survivor with a full life ahead of you.’
Visit www.achmat.com or follow Achmat on Twitter @achmathassiem.