Shark attack survivor Dave Pearson stopped counting the cost of his medical bills once they reached $30,000.
- Dave Pearson said he realised the medical expenses of dealing with his shark attack had become “like paying for bread and milk”
- However, he said the financial burden of recovery stopped many survivors from seeking help
- Beyond the Bite is helping to organise free counselling, with psychotherapy graduate Jules Alexander offering his services pro bono
The founder of Beyond the Bite, a charity for those touched by a shark attack, realised his rehabilitation had become one of his life’s essentials, “like paying for bread and milk”.
It is a financial reality that Mr Pearson said confronts hundreds of survivors who battle physical and psychological trauma, and which even stops some from seeking help.
But the group aims to ease some of the burden with the introduction of a free dedicated counselling service.
The initiative comes during a year when attacks in Australian waters look set to be higher than usual, and as demand for the charity grows internationally.
It also comes on the back of study by the University of Sydney, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 2018, showing shark attack victims and first responders are three times more like to experience PTSD and show a higher level of suicidal ideation than other Australians.
People ‘don’t want to hear about it’
For most survivors, the immediate aftermath of an attack is radically life-changing, according to Mr Pearson, who suffered injuries to his arm when he was attacked in 2011.
“Initially it is very, sort of, euphoric, having survived an event that could have taken your life,” he told ABC Radio Sydney’s Evenings program.
But the media spotlight and attention from friends quickly fades, leaving the victim feeling like “yesterday’s news”.
He also had to deal with insensitive comments from strangers on social media.
“It really was a mind-blowing experience to be treated like the enemy of the ocean,” he said.
Soon the medical bills were piling up and the prospect of lengthy, potentially lifelong, rehabilitation was daunting.
“Shark attacks are not cheap and any funds you have can quickly be deleted,” Mr Pearson said.
When his medical expenses began to climb, Mr Pearson and his partner had to decide how much they wanted to pay for his treatment.
“We came to the agreement that it was just like buying bread and milk — it was what I needed to be healthy — so we decided to stop counting the amount of money,” he said.
“I’ll drive an old, crappy car around as long as I’m happy and healthy.”
But not everyone feels the same way.
‘It’s a continuous battle’
It was an attitude psychotherapy graduate Jules Alexander wanted to change by approaching the group to offer his services pro bono.
He is one of two professionals to come on board this year.
The former commercial diver has had friends die or be seriously injured in shark attacks, and has come face to face with many himself.
“I know a lot about sharks and a lot about trauma so I’m happy to help in that sphere,” Mr Alexander said.
Mr Pearson said it has been a big help.
“It’s a connection you just don’t get with other people, even our partners,” Mr Pearson said.
Mr Alexander said while counsellors were often willing to make accommodations to help victims, finding the right support could be tricky.
“The perception of what is available and what is actually on the ground when you need it is not the same,” he said.
While it is a challenging process, he said, many people improved.
“I find that most people, over time, get better but it’s a continuous battle,” he said.
Attacks higher than usual
It has been a tough year for survivors, with five people killed in Australian waters so far this year, and a 10-year-old boy from Tasmania among those injured.
Mr Pearson said news of every incident brought up trauma for the group’s 350 members.
“The stress level of all of our people goes through the roof … they start reliving their own experiences,” he said.
But the new service has been a silver lining.
He is now getting requests for help from overseas, including the United States.
“We’ve got members from all over the world now … this week alone we have four or five new members from the east coast of America alone,” he said.
The support service is something Mr Pearson is passionate about extending to shark attack survivors across the world.