Jai Villamil has been surfing for about six years. But on his first trip to New Smyrna Beach, the 12-year-old Cocoa Beach resident was bitten by a shark.
Since Monday evening when the bite occurred, Jai has had three surgeries to repair his right leg. On Monday, he’ll undergo a fourth, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
When the shark bit Jai, it damaged a nerve that controls his ability to move his foot up and down. His fourth surgery will involve a nerve graft from his left leg to repair 15 centimeters of this damaged nerve in his right leg. Recovery is expected to take about six to eight months.
Jai is excited to get this surgery out of the way.
“It’s planned to be my last surgery until I can get out (of the hospital),” he said.
He added that while he’s enjoyed having company from family and friends in the hospital, he hates just sitting in one place and is hopeful recovery will be a little speedier than predicted.
From surfing to surgeries: the bite
Jai and a few of his friends traveled to New Smyrna beach Monday evening to surf with Charley Hajek, also known as Gnarly Charley, a surf coach who runs Gnarly Charley’s Grom Surf Series.
Hajek, 58, said after catching a few waves, he and Jai were walking back farther out into the water from a sandbar when Jai told him he thought he’d been bitten.
“I go, ‘No you didn’t,’” Hajek said. “So he kind of lifts his leg up, and sure enough, the whole back of his leg is missing.”
Hajek said the wound stretched from about four inches below Jai’s right knee to his Achilles tendon. Based on the depth of the water and the size of the bite, he said it was likely Jai was bitten by a bull shark.
In that moment, Hajek’s primary concern was stopping the bleeding as quickly as possible.
Once the two got back to shore, Hajek said he called 911 and wrapped towels around the wound. When that didn’t work, he used the leash of his surfboard to create a tourniquet.
While Jai knew he’d been bit, he said he wasn’t in much pain and that it was “more of a weird feeling.”
“I guess I got lucky, you could say, because when I got bit, it bit my nerves,” he said. “My leg is completely numb.”
The leash stopped the bleeding until help arrived and Jai was transported by ambulance to Halifax Health Medical Center, where he had his first surgery. He was later taken to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
Jai’s mother, Jamerica Villamil, said she was working when it happened. An owner of Mecca Beauty Bar and Salon, she was in the middle of applying hair color to a client’s hair when the mother of one of Jai’s friend’s called and told her they were coming to pick her up.
“When I got (to the hospital), he was already in the surgery room, so I didn’t get to see him for like two hours,” she said. When she finally got to see him, she said it was “terrifying.”
After his first surgery, during which doctors cauterized the wound and wrapped it, Jai was transported by ambulance almost immediately to Arnold Palmer.
There, he had his second surgery to clean the wound and repair the tendons. During his third surgery, doctors cleaned the wound again and left part of it open for the surgery Monday.
Hanging loose: recovery
Despite the rough week, Jai is optimistic. He said he expects to have a “pretty cool scar.”
“I’m pretty excited for that,” he said.
During his time at the hospital, professional surfers such as CJ Hobgood and Jamie O’Brien have reached out to Jai to share encouraging words.
“It makes it so much better when I saw their texts on Instagram and stuff,” he said. “They’re my idols.”
One aspect of recovery that Jai is struggling with is the knowledge that he’s going to be inactive for a while. In addition to surfing, he plays soccer with a local team and enjoys activities such as skateboarding and running.
“I like to be outside more than anything, so it kind of sucks that I’ve got to sit in bed for the next four or five months or so,” he said.
However, as soon as he recovers, he said he’ll be back playing soccer and surfing again — and the shark bite doesn’t make him more nervous to be in the water.
“I can’t be scared of it,” he said. “I probably got mistaken for a crowd of fish or something.”
A GoFundMe account was started by a friend to help pay Jai’s hospital bills. So far, they’ve raised a little more than $33,000 out of the $100,000 goal.
The Space Coast Freedivers are also holding a silent auction Monday at Time Out Sports Bar Plus from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. In addition to the raffle and silent auctions they will hold, 10% of all restaurant sales will be donated to the freedivers, who will use the money to aid in Jais recovery.