The Conversation

Life after Shark Attack

The remarkable spirit of Paige Winter

By Dana Sachs

Paige Winter: Survivor

On June 2 of last year, a shark attacked you when you were in the ocean near Morehead City. How do you remember that day?

When I think about it, it doesn’t freak me out. It almost feels like a dream because all the blood loss and stuff made me loopy. I remember talking to my dad and my brother and the paramedics and the helicopter guys. My whole body went numb. I knew what had happened. I was like, “Wow.”

You were 17 then?

I’m still 17. I turn 18 next month.

Your dad, Charlie Winter, got you away from the shark. It’s lucky that he’s a paramedic and firefighter.

I feel more lucky because he’s a big man! He has all types of muscles, so he is really strong. He was a paramedic when he was getting me out of the water, but once he got me on the beach he was like, “OK. I’m a dad. This is my kid. I’m freaking out.” He wasn’t screaming or crying or anything, but he was freaking out. He looked worried.

It’s interesting that you could perceive his emotions, considering what you were going through yourself.

Yeah. I was laying down, most of my blood gone, and my dad crawled out of the water and I was like, “Did it get you?” And he was like, “No!” I was worried about him.

When you were in the water, did you know immediately that it was a shark?

No. I’ve been to the beach a lot, and my dad and other people they’ll grab my leg because they think it’s funny. I started laughing. And then it started to really hurt and I got pulled under water and it stopped hurting and I just felt nothing. I thought it was a snapping turtle because I ran my hand over it and one way is smooth and the other way is rough. I thought, “This is smooth. It’s a really strong snapping turtle.” And then I was like, “No. It’s not.”

Both you and your dad have an ability to remain calm in an emergency. Did you always know that about yourself?

I didn’t. You know that idea of “fight, flight, or freeze”? I’ve always had the freeze effect. I thought that if something really popped off I’d spring into action, but when this happened I mostly froze. I was scared, but I was like, “My dad’s going to come get me in a second.”

Ultimately, you lost your left leg and your pinkie and ring fingers of your left hand. You’ve had four surgeries and spent a month in the hospital. What did you have to learn in order to take care of yourself?

I quickly adapted. My hands were all casted up to my elbow except for one thumb that wasn’t affected. Within a week, I learned how to text with that thumb. My situation was always changing. I went from that big, bulky cast to more narrow splints to just wearing splints in the daytime and then to no splints at all except on my left hand at night.

You had nerve damage in your left hand?

It’s all types of damage because I tried to get the shark off of me by putting my hands in its mouth — which, by the way, doesn’t work. Please don’t try it.

OK! Were you left-handed or right-handed?

I was right-handed. So, yay!

You’re working to help your left hand become more functional?

I don’t think I’ll ever have full function. It’ll be more like for gripping stuff, which is fine. I didn’t really use it for much anyway.

And how about your prosthetic leg?

I like it a lot. I can’t really run with it. We’re working on getting me a blade prosthetic, which is engineered for athletics. I’d use that one for performances because I do theater and chorus and I have to run around a lot.

In a few months, you’ll receive a service dog named Otis, who is currently being trained by the nonprofit Highland Canine Connect. Can you tell me about Otis?

Otis is a very perfect man and I love him. If I try to get up off the floor, Otis will be the thing to help me push up. And if I drop something, he’ll pick it up and bring it to me. And turn on light switches. Open doors. He is a goldendoodle. He’s very calm. He’s black and white with curly hair, just like a cow. That’s why I named him Otis, which is the name of the cow in Barnyard, a movie I loved when I was little.

It might surprise people to know that you’re also an advocate for sharks.

Yeah. I think it was in the ambulance that I said, “Dad! Don’t be mad at the shark.” It’s just an animal being an animal. There’s risk whenever you do anything. I didn’t want anyone to hurt it because I know that shark population numbers are getting really bad.

Since your accident, you’ve started to have a pretty broad public profile on Instagram. How do you use it?

Yes, I’m @probably.paige. I’m mostly interested in climate change, environmental conservation, LGBTQ rights. Equal rights for everybody, more representation for people with disabilities. I have never seen a single movie with someone with a prosthetic.

You’ve joined the actor Robert Downey Jr. in helping protect the oceans. What’s the project?

It’s called the Footprint Coalition, and it’s going to use new technologies to eliminate microplastics in the ocean. I’ll be an ambassador, a voice for younger people because, you know Robert Downey Jr. He’s great, but he’s also not a teenager.

Would you like to get into theater or singing when you grow up?

Look, I love Miss Ariana Grande with all of my heart. I wanted to be just like her for so long. And I could still go with that. I still like to sing. But right now people are pushing me to do environmental work, which is great. That’s fine with me.

Some people go through 10 or 20 different careers in their lives.

Right. I’m about to just be an adult. I can’t decide everything right now.

How do you think you’ve changed in the past year?

I used to freak out over everything. After all that happened to me, I thought, “OK. Maybe I’m a little bit stronger than I thought I was.” But I’m still a teenager. A lot of people online forget that I am 17. I still care about teenager things. When I wanted to be homecoming queen, people were like, “It’s such a shame that you actually care about this stuff.” And I’m like, “I’m 17.”

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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