A San Diego woman wounded in a shark attack nearly two months ago is improving by the day, growing stronger with each step as she works toward being discharged from the hospital, her trauma surgeon said Tuesday.
“She is, physically, very strong,” said Gail Tominaga, M.D., the Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla trauma surgeon who admitted Leeanne Ericson on April 29 after she was attacked by a shark off San Onofre State Beach near Camp Pendleton.
“She’s actually very amazing, for everything she’s been through,” the surgeon added.
Tominaga is among the two dozen specialists who have been caring for Ericson since the shark attack. The team includes four surgeons, numerous physician assistants, nurses and others.
On Tuesday, Tominaga shared the final update on behalf of Scripps on Ericson’s recovery.
The surgeon said her patient – who suffered significant injuries to her right thigh and buttocks and tremendous blood loss – has gone through multiple extensive surgeries and is now undergoing physical therapy.
Ericson can get up and take steps with both legs, Tominaga said – a long way from where she was on the day she was admitted to the trauma center.
“We did not know if she was going to survive,” said Tominaga, recalling that in the first 24 to 48 hours of Ericson’s hospitalization, she was unstable and bleeding heavily.
Tominaga said Ericson underwent emergency blood transfusions in those first few days. She was at risk of contracting atypical infections due to her wounds being exposed to the ocean water and the shark’s mouth, the surgeon said. Antibiotics and numerous surgeries were needed.
On May 19, Tominaga said Ericson underwent a skin grafting operation to close her wounds.
“During the surgeries, they put a biologic matrix called 'ACell' on the wound to help the growth of the tissue over the area of the nerve and of the area of missing tissue,” the trauma surgeon explained.
She said one of the biggest challenges for Ericson is the substantial loss of soft tissue to her leg, which left her leg very weak. She also suffered a sciatic nerve injury that left her with no sensation to her foot.
Tominaga said Ericson’s leg would never be “100 percent functional, will” but she will be able to walk and go up and down stairs.
Once Ericson is discharged – a date the patient wishes to keep private – Tominaga said physical therapists would advise whether Ericson can go home or whether it’s best for her to transition to a rehabilitation facility.
While Ericson’s road to recovery will be long, Tominaga said the survivor is staying focused and upbeat thanks to her supportive family, friends, and community.
“She’s been amazing; she works very hard; she’s been very optimistic,” Tominaga added.
The surgeon went on to read a statement from Ericson in which she thanked her doctors, first responders, and the community.
Earlier this month, Ericson wrote about her recovery on an online fundraising page established by her family to help cover her medical expenses. She talked about wanting to get better so she could be reunited with her children.
“My kids have visited me a few times and can’t wait for their mommy to be back home. For now, I need to focus on healing so I can get back to my family as soon as possible,” her message read.
A few days before that, Ericson's mother, Christine McKnerney-Leidle, said in an online update that her daughter had started walking, taking 40 steps in the hospital.
“We hope she will be in rehab soon and then home after that,” McKnerney-Leidle's post read. “She is staying strong, and positive she wants to thank all of you for your support and prayers. God bless you all.”
On April 29, Ericson was airlifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla after being attacked by a shark in the waters off San Onofre State Beach, near Camp Pendleton, in San Diego's North County.
The shark attack took place at San Onofre State Beach, located off Interstate 5 at Basilone Road, about 3 miles south of San Clemente, California, and 58 miles north of downtown San Diego.
The beach was closed to the public for several days following the shark attack. It reopened, but throughout May authorities issued warnings at the beach after reported shark sightings near the same area where Ericson had been attacked.
According to investigators, Ericson was camping with her boyfriend when the couple decided to go in the water. Ericson swam while her boyfriend surfed next to her at a favorite spot at the beach.
The victim’s mother said the couple saw a seal in the water and Ericson’s boyfriend turned to swim out to a wave. Just then, Ericson disappeared from the water’s surface.
The woman was attacked by a shark approximately 10 feet in length who ripped through the back of Ericson’s leg, tearing out all the muscle from her knee to her hip. The shark just missed the victim’s major arteries, McKnerney-Leidle said on Facebook.
As Ericson was dragged into the water, her lungs filled with foam and debris. She was airlifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla just before 6:30 p.m. that evening.
Ericson survived the shark attack, but her road to a full recovery will be painful and lengthy.
In early May, Tominaga gave an update on the woman's condition, saying she was awake and able to answer questions by nodding or shaking her head. At that point, Ericson was still on a breathing tube. Doctors had also started the process of reconstructing the victim’s leg.
Ericson works for a local credit union, Pacific Marine Credit Union. The company has opened an account to collect donations to help the victim in her recovery. Donations can be made at any Pacific Marine Credit Union branch, or by mail. Checks can be made payable to:
C/O Pacific Marine Credit Union
1278 Rocky Point Drive
Oceanside, CA 92056
Her family also continues to run this GoFundMe page, which as of Tuesday, had raised more than $90,000.
Last year, there were an estimated 59 shark attacks across the U.S., according to data collected by scientists at the University of Florida.