Last year, New York neurologist Bill Lytton made national headlines for surviving a shark attack at Longnook Beach in Truro. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Lytton a year after the attack to see how he's doing, and to learn more about his experience. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: How is your recovery? I imagine it's been a long road after being treated at Spaulding here in Boston.
Bill Lytton: Yes, it's been quite a while, but everything's gone remarkably smoothly. I mean, I'm walking very well [and I] go up and down stairs well. Still can't run [and] can't jog, but those are maybe coming; we'll see in probably another year how that goes. But yeah, considering the degree of injury, I've been very lucky all the way through.
Mathieu: Can you describe the extent of injury? I remember seeing images of you on crutches.
Lytton: The injury was all the way up and down the leg and really kind of wrapped around from the front of the leg to the back of the leg. But mostly on the front were really severe lacerations that went through the muscle.
Mathieu: Bill, do you remember the moment it happened?
Lytton: Yeah, very clearly. Although I have to say that I've told this story so many times that I'm really remembering the remembering more than I'm remembering the thing now. But I was just swimming southward along the beach, a fitness swim. [I was] 20 minutes into a 30-minute swim, because I had just checked my watch. And I had this terrible pain in my left leg and looked back and there was a big fish glommed onto me. Its head was way out of the water. It seemed to be trying to push me down into the water. So I was able to punch it in the gill, which got it to release and swim away. And then I had to swim my own way into shore, despite losing a lot of blood. There was a big cloud of red behind me that I was getting nervous about, because [if] you lose a certain amount of blood, you're going to lose consciousness. I had to get into shore to yell for help.
Mathieu: This is a visual memory still for you. You're not retelling the story based on hearing yourself tell the story.
Lytton: [It's a] little of each. It's the shark and the red cloud. Those are the visual bits. The pain, you know, I just remember it was severe pain, but it's very hard to recall pain, per se. And the sound I don't remember at all, no. The coldness of the water, landing on the beach [and] the feel of the sand.
Mathieu: Wow. Something most people will never know, Bill.
Lytton: Just as well.
Mathieu: Yeah. Well, that's for sure. You say you punched the shark in the gills. I'm not sure most people would think to do that.
Lytton: Well, I think I heard on a television documentary some years ago that the spots to hit on the shark are the snout, the gills and the eyes. And I guess I have some experience just seeing sharks from having scuba dived for many years, so I guess that might have reinforced in my head what to do if a shark comes after you.
Mathieu: That's some serious survival instinct.
Lytton: Yeah, it's lucky that I did that.
Mathieu: Bill, your story's helped to create an image of Cape Cod that some think the media have overplayed — guys like me talk too much about [it]. It's certainly not kept you from going back to the Cape.
Lytton: No, I've been coming here for about 20 years. I mostly just work over the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratories here in Woods Hole. But I've gotten back in the water. A little nervous, but it's okay.
Mathieu: You've gone back into the ocean?
Mathieu: What beach did you go on?
Lytton: Just the beaches locally here at Woods Hole.
Mathieu: Not back in Truro?
Lytton: Not back in Truro.
Mathieu: Would you do that?
Lytton: I would go back to Truro and sit on the beach. I don't think I would go on the water.
Mathieu: Oh man. I get scared swimming in the ocean and I've never had anything like this happen. What goes through your mind when you wade in?
Lytton: I mean, I'm looking around for sharks. I'm just nervous about what happened. It's more [of a] very low-level, almost a panicky feeling of instinctual fear than it is anything rational.
Mathieu: Because what are the odds? I mean, that would be lightning striking twice, right?
Lytton: Well, lightning does strike twice because it strikes high points. But anyway, it's okay to go swimming. I think they have made a lot of changes here at Cape Cod. I actually look at the Sharktivity alert thing a couple of times a day just out of curiosity, and they close the beaches for an hour when there's a shark spotted. The first time I saw that Sharktivity app I thought, "Oh my God, the sharks are gathering around just where the beaches are [and] where the people are." Of course, that's not the case. That's where people are who see the sharks. So that's why it looks like that.
Mathieu: I'm glad you brought up some of the changes that have been made with the call boxes and some of the other stuff that we've seen on outer Cape beaches. Does that make you feel safer? Will that help?
Lytton: Sure. I hope that is enough to solve the problem. Certainly one may want to consider reducing the number of seals [and] reducing the number sharks, but if this works that's the best way to do it.
Mathieu: Do you have a big family, Bill?
Lytton: Yeah. We've got three kids: one grown [and] two small ones. They've been very supportive.
Mathieu: What do they say when you go swimming in the ocean?
Lytton: Well, my wife was very against it for a long time. I joke that she's almost ready to upgrade me from shower to bath. Now she's letting me go in the ocean, but keeps an eye on me.