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Surgeon who operated on shark attack victim says it was a ‘miracle’ injuries weren’t more serious

William Lytton said he escaped the shark this month by punching the predator in the gills after it clamped down on his leg.Steven Senne/Associated Press

A surgeon who operated on a New York man attacked by a shark off Cape Cod this month said Thursday it “was a miracle’’ he was not more seriously injured.

“I thought there was a pretty good chance of major blood vessel or nerve damage,’’ said Dr. Scott Ryan, chief of orthopedic trauma surgery at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “However, the shark missed major nerves by a few millimeters.’’

Ryan, in an interview, said he had never operated on a shark attack victim before. But the type of injuries swimmer William Lytton suffered were very familiar. They were similar to those Ryan treated after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — very severe, deep cuts.


But because the shark missed major nerves and arteries, Lytton was not in danger of losing his leg.

Ryan and other Tufts surgeons operated eight times over the course of a week on Lytton, who was swimming off Truro when he was bitten Aug. 15. It took “several hundred stitches’’ to sew up the damaged muscle and skin around Lytton’s left leg, Ryan said.

Ryan removed two fragments of shark teeth from the wound, very close to bone. Lytton’s family has requested that Tufts send the fragments to shark scientists to confirm that they belonged to a great white shark.

Lytton, 61, told the Associated Press he escaped the shark by punching the predator in the gills after it clamped down on his leg. He said he had been swimming in ‘‘8 to 10 feet’’ of water off Longnook Beach when he felt an incredible pain shoot through his left leg and quickly realized he was being attacked by a shark.

Other beachgoers, including off-duty medical professionals, helped stop the bleeding and carried him up the dunes to the beach parking lot as he started to lose consciousness from blood loss. He was taken by medical helicopter to Tufts in Boston, where he was put in a medically induced coma for two days while doctors did the initial, most-extensive operations.


Lytton, a neurologist from Scarsdale, N.Y., is now at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. He is already putting weight on his left leg but cannot bend it because the muscle is not healed, Ryan said.

The surgeon expects Lytton will be able to bend his leg in three to six weeks and recover completely in six months to a year.

Ryan said Lytton is driven to get well and has lots of family support.

“He is an impressive man, and I have no doubt he will return to full function,’’ he said. “I saw him yesterday, and he is doing very well.’’

Ryan also vacationed with his family in Truro this summer, swimming in the ocean several weeks before Lytton was attacked. Ryan swam on the Cape Cod Bay side of the peninsula, while Lytton swam on the Atlantic Ocean side, where a number of sharks have been seen swimming near shore this summer.

Still, Ryan said he doubts his family will swim in Cape waters again unless “it’s very shallow.’’

“The risk is low, but if it happens to you it’s 100 percent,’’ he said.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at