12-year-old shark bite survivor: 4 surgeries, nerve damage. Next up? School and soccer
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A little more than a month after suffering a shark bite, Jai Villamil is back in the water.
While he hasn't been able to go back in the ocean yet with his leg still recovering from the bite and four subsequent surgeries, the 12-year-old Cocoa Beach surfer has been enjoying time in the pool as he rests and recuperates.
"It's just nice to feel water on me again," he said.
How a surfing trip led to 4 surgeries
Everything began about a month and a half ago, when Jai and his friends went to New Smyrna Beach on the evening of June 14. His friends headed out into the water with Charley Hajek, also known as Gnarly Charley, a surf coach who runs Gnarly Charley's Grom Surf Series.
Previous story:12-year-old Cocoa Beach shark bite survivor preparing for fourth surgery
Hajek recounted the incident, saying as he and Jai headed further into the water after catching a few waves, Jai said he'd been bitten. When Jai showed Hajek his leg, a wound stretched from about four inches below Jai's right knee to his Achilles tendon.
In the days following, Jai underwent four surgeries.
His wound was cauterized, tendons were repaired and during his fourth surgery, a nerve was taken from his left leg and grafted to his right leg to repair 15 centimeters of the damage done by the shark bite.
Now, Jai is walking with the aid of a knee scooter, and a boot has replaced his cast.
The shark bite is mostly closed and scabbed over. His right foot — where the nerve damage is — still doesn't have feeling on the bottom portion, but he expects to regain sensation within four to six months, he said.
Once that feeling comes back, he'll be able to start walking again.
In the meantime, physical therapy for his ankle and Achilles tendon will begin in about a month.
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What school looks like this year
Jai's mom, Jamerica Villamil, is an owner of Mecca Beauty Bar and Salon. She's stayed home with Jai since the bite, but will head back to work when Jai goes back to school.
"We're doing good," she said. "It's going to be a lot better now that school's about to start. We look forward to that."
Jai is looking forward to the start of soccer — a sport he's even more passionate about than surfing. The season starts around October, Villamil said, which is a little less than four months after Jai suffered the shark bite.
Jai and his mom are optimistic about him playing again in the future, whether that's this year or next year.
"He told me that he's going to play soccer this year," Villamil said. "Even though he's in seventh grade, he could have easily made the JV team. So we'll see."
"I really want to play soccer again," Jai said. "I'm definitely going to do that."
Jai's also looking forward to being busy with friends every day. But he's concerned about his leg possibly getting hurt.
"I'm kind of nervous," he said. "I don't want anybody to hit my leg. If something happens, my mom's not going to be able to get there really quick."
Villamil said Jai's school is working to make sure he has any accommodations he needs to help make the year easier, including getting him to and from class and making sure he's comfortable within the classroom.
"Everyone's been really great," she said.
Support from the community
Both Jai and his mom spoke of support not only from school, but also from friends and the community.
Jai said his friends have been able to hang out with him a lot and have even been able to help him in the middle of the night when they have sleepovers, since mobility is still a struggle for Jai.
Even strangers have recognized Jai after the 12-year-old appeared in news articles and on TV interviews last month. Jai said when he went to Catalyst, a surf shop in Cocoa Beach, an employee stopped to talk to him.
"He asked if I was the kid who got bit," Jai said. "So that was kind of cool."
Community members have donated to help support Jai through a GoFundMe a friend set up, helping to raise about $39,500 out of the $100,000 goal. In June, the Space Coast Freedivers held a silent auction at Time Out Sports Bar Plus to help raise money for Jai's surgeries.
Villamil said a number of professional surfers have been in contact with Jai since the shark bite.
Cocoa Beach surfing legend Kelly Slater and surfer Jamie O'Brien of Hawaii reached out to Jai and have shared words of encouragement. Additionally, Trey Collins, a Melbourne Beach surfer and the founder of the lifestyle brand GBED — Get Better Every Day — sent Jai some sweaters.
"I want to say a huge thanks to anyone who's supported and reached out, because if it wasn't for people reaching out to him and talking to him, he would be completely bored," Villamil said. "It means a lot. It keeps his spirits up and going."
Emily Walker is a Breaking News Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Walker at 321-290-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @_emilylwalker