Modern history

A Doctor in the House

Dr. Eugene Vansant flew down the boardwalk steps, onto the sand, and rushed to the fallen figure of his son. Ott and Barklie moved aside to make room, and Eugene kneeled on the beach and took Charles's hand. The young man was lying on his back, his left leg a bloodied mass, blood pouring from the wound and pooling with the soft, receding tide. His face was a ghastly white, and he moaned in pain, reeling toward unconsciousness. Eugene put his fingers to his son's wrist; the boy's pulse was weakening. His eyes signaled that he recognized his father. There was little time.

Dr. Vansant removed his jacket and vest, rolled up his sleeves, and ordered that no one touch the wound. Germ theory was one of the principal findings of Dr. Vansant's lifetime, and Vansant operated in sterile whites instead of a black business suit, as he had once done. But no modern supplies were available now. The doctor's mind raced as he was thrown back on his training in nineteenth-century medicine. He had never seen such a wound. What in the Lord's name had caused it? Was it suffused with animal poisons? It appeared like a wound of war, but it was a bite. He recalled the wisdom of his teachers—men who were legendary doctors from the Crimean War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. His mentor, Dr. Samuel David Gross, wrote The Manual of Military Surgery in 1861 at the request of Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. It became the classic Union guide to amputations on the battlefield, using chloroform and a bone saw. Confederate doctors used it too, adding a sip of brandy to soften a man's will for the procedure. But now there was little available but brandy, and nothing could be done, Dr. Vansant realized, until the bleeding was stopped.

Alexander Ott, the heroic swimmer, tore strips of fabric from a woman's dress to use as a tourniquet, but the rush of blood barely slowed. Soon Dr. Herbert Willis, a future mayor of Beach Haven, joined Dr. Vansant at his son's side, along with Dr. Joseph Neff, former director of public health in Philadelphia. The three medical men inspected the wound and conferred. A fish bite of such magnitude was outside their experience. The bleeding was so profuse that the doctors feared Charles wouldn't survive an automobile ride to the nearest hospital in Toms River, thirty miles northwest.

Engle suggested they move the young man back to the hotel, where there was water, soap, and bandages. Dr. Vansant helped carry his son to the hotelier's office. There the men quickly unscrewed the hinges of Engle's office door and laid it across two desks as an operating table, a familiar sight to Dr. Vansant, for it resembled the legendary old wooden operating table in the Jefferson Hospital operating theater. But little else during the crisis was familiar, and it was soon evident that in the hour of his son's direst need, Dr. Vansant wasn't quite sure what to do. This pained him terribly, both as a father and as a physician, dredging up memories he would rather never have re-encountered. For many years, it was suspected by his peers in nineteenth-century medicine that Vansant wasn't properly trained to handle an emergency. The criticism may have been unfair, but it weighed heavily on him since his main critic was the legendary Dr. Gross, the venerable “father of American surgery.”

Gross was immortalized in the most famous medical painting of the nineteenth century, Thomas Eakins's masterpiece The Gross Clinic, in which the renowned professor stands in black street clothes, raising a bloody scalpel to make a lecture point, having made an incision in a young man's leg without sterilization procedures, which were unknown. In the gloom of the operating theater—lit only by skylight—a black-cowled woman, apparently the boy's mother, covers her face in agony.

Vansant heard the grandiose white-haired professor's admonitions in his dreams. Gross had warned that to leave the ranks of legitimate practitioners for a narrow specialty was to forgo the proper education of a medical man, to risk inability to recognize general problems in the major organs and extremities of the body, to be helpless in a crisis. Gross once introduced the most distinguished laryngologist of the nineteenth century, Dr. Jacob da Silva Solis-Cohen, to a lecture hall as a man “who devotes most of his time to a cubic inch of the human anatomy,” adding, “Someday I suppose we will have specialists confining themselves to diseases of the navel.”

The sight of his son also recalled and magnified the feelings of doubt and helplessness Dr. Vansant had suffered upon the sickness and death of his other sons, Eugene Jr. and William. In Engle's office, Dr. Vansant assisted in cleaning and bandaging the wound, but the bleeding remained profuse. He discussed with the other doctor transporting Charles to a hospital by motorcar, but the wound was so severe, they agreed he would not reach the hospital in time. Half a century later, Vansant's wound would have been considered relatively minor for a shark attack, medium-severity arterial damage, which “the victim usually survives if correct [modern] treatment is administered on the beach,” according to South African doctors D. H. Davies and G. D. Campbell in The Aetiology, Clinical Pathology and Treatment of Shark Attack. But that evening, at 6:45, an hour after he entered the water for a swim, Charles Epting Vansant died of shock and massive hemorrhaging on Robert Engle's office door. Dr. Eugene LaRue Vansant looked on helplessly as his son died.

Within a year, grief would age him terribly, turn his hair completely white, and leave him a stooped and beaten man.

That evening a hush fell over the Engleside dining room. But after dinner, hotel guests cornered fishermen and baymen and other wizened veterans of the shore who drifted on and off of the veranda all night long. The red trails of pipes and cigars waved in the night, and the number of people who had witnessed the attack seemed to grow by the hour. Robert Engle tried to remain stoic and calm as reporters from Philadelphia newspapers scuttled about the lobby and veranda, questioning his guests. Disagreements and arguments broke out, until finally a consensus emerged of suspects in young Vansant's death: a giant tuna, a shark, but most likely a great sea turtle, which had the power, the fishermen said, to snap a man in half. The attending physician had a different opinion. He recorded the primary cause of death on Vansant's death certificate as “hemorrhage from femoral artery, left side,” with the contributory cause being “bitten by a shark while bathing.” It was the first time a shark bite had appeared as an official cause of death in U.S. history. Seeking to reassure his guests, Engle stood and declared bathers had nothing to worry about—the next morning, the hotel would erect a netting around the beach strong enough to block German U-boats. Swimming in the clear, paradisal waters of the Engleside would go on as usual.

But a somber mood pervaded the Engleside that evening as one by the one the hundreds of room lights that cast out over the shore winked out. A new and nameless fear had seized the guests, a fear of the unknown as well as a fear of the sea. Even those who watched the attack had little notion of what they had witnessed, except to agree, as W. K. Barklie told whoever would listen, “Mr. Vansant's death was the most horrible I ever saw.”

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