Right place, right time: Topeka nurse helps swimmer survive shark attack

Christina Barker, a pediatric ICU nurse, was with a youth group mission trip in California when a man was attacked by a shark.
Published: Sep. 8, 2022 at 10:35 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A youth group from First Christian Church in Topeka set off for Monterey Bay, California this summer on what was meant to be an educational mission trip.

Christina Barker was one of the adult sponsors for the group of more than a dozen teens ranging in age from eighth grade to recent high school graduates.

”We were out there doing a sustainability (mission), protecting the environment, cleaning out the ocean,” she explained. “We did a lot of beach clean ups.”

But the lessons June 22nd were entirely unexpected.

“We had gone to the beach that day to work with a surf pro who’s been surfing for 35 years in waters off Monterey,” Christina said. “He had allowed them to use his surfboards and they were kind of padding parallel to the shore when the attack happened.”

Christina says one of her fellow sponsors spotted what he at first thought was a dolphin, then realized was a shark. Seconds later, they heard someone yelling.

“We thought (the swimmer) was drowning or struggling to swim is what it looked like from where we were,” Christina said.

The surf instructor grabbed two boards and ran for the water. Christina, who happens to be a pediatric ICU nurse at Stormont Vail in Topeka, grabbed items from the medical kit she never has far from reach; told people to toss her their t-shirts or towels; and headed to the water as well.

She was among those who met the surf pro - plus another nurse and police officer who happened to be at the beach - as they brought the swimmer to shore. She soon saw the trail of blood behind the surfboard, and knew this was not a person who simply had trouble swimming.

“I’ve been a part of different accidents with bleeding and different things like that and CPR but this was by far very, very different. It was definitely a bite and we had to stop the bleeding,” she said.

Christina directed fellow group sponsor Brian Mays, along with a doctor who also was at the beach, to apply pressure to the swimmer’s abdomen, and they used the towels and t-shirts as tourniquets on other areas of a wound that stretched from the lower leg through his midsection to his arm.

Christina credits her training at Baker University School of Nursing and experience responding to trauma situations with Stormont’s team for preparing her to take action.

“There wasn’t any panicking,” she said. “It was just kid of one thing after another - we gotta stop this one, now there’s bleeding there, now there’s bleeding there.”

The swimmer was Steve Bruemmer. DNA and bite radius analysis of his wound showed it was a 17foot great white shark that came up below him.

Weeks after the attack, Bruemmer shared from his hospital bed at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, Cal. just how fortunate he was.

“I’m not a seal. It’s looking for a seal. We’re not their food. It spit me out,” he said. “I had tourniquets on my legs and arms within five minutes to stop the bleeding. Otherwise I’d bleed to death.”

Christina says she feels like the lucky one. She says Bruemmer’s wife sends regular updates on his progress.

“Working in the hospital and responding to traumas and taking care of patients in the ICU, we don’t always get to see them after they leave us,” she said. “Getting to see him through his rehab process and as he’s doing it has been very interesting, very humbling to see how well he’s doing.”

She says it’s also a reminder of why everyone should know basic response skills.

“You never know when a car accident happens in front of you or somebody falls off their bike or out of a tree, so just having that information in your pocket is huge,” she said.

Christina said the youth group members handled all this well. She said it inspired some of them who are old enough to become blood donors, and they’re planning a ‘Stop the Bleed’ class at a future meeting. Stormont offers those classes for free to the community. You can find upcoming sessions on Stormont’s online calendar. The next is 9 to 10:30 a.m. Sept. 17 at Pozez Education Center.