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Shark attack victim's family clings to dream of recovery

When a shark bit off his arm and crunched through his thigh, Jessie Arbogast's chances of survival didn't look good. But two years later, Jessie is alive and his family hopes he can still recover.

Jessie, now 10, can't walk. He can't talk. But he can still smile.

"It's wonderful to see his smile in the morning," his mother, Claire Arbogast of Ocean Springs, said this week. "He responds to our family, to our laughter and jokes. That's why we still think he can make it."

Just before sunset on July 6, 2001, Jessie, then 8, was frolicking at Langdon Beach near Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle when a 6{-foot bull shark attacked, tearing off his right arm above the elbow. The child lost practically all of his blood, which caused some brain damage.

"All I did was react," recalled Vance Flosenzier of Mobile, Ala., Jessie's uncle, who rescued him. "I didn't even have time to think, except that I knew Jessie was in trouble."

Flosenzier grabbed the shark's tail and held tight. As he pulled the 200-pound fish toward shore, Jessie's arm came off in its mouth.

Flosenzier's wife, Diana, sister of Claire Arbogast, administered CPR to her nephew and is credited with keeping him alive.

A Gulf Islands National Seashore ranger shot the shark four times in the head. "An off-duty fireman had an emergency kit and used forceps to retrieve the arm from the shark's gullet," recalled Diana Flosenzier.

The Arbogast children were visiting their aunt and uncle.

Jessie was airlifted to Pensacola Baptist Hospital. He received 30 pints of blood during a grueling night of surgery. His arm was reattached. After treatment at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital, also in Pensacola, he was returned home, where his dad, David, gave up his job as a tile setter and became a full-time caregiver for his youngest son.

"Jessie interacts with his brothers and sisters within his capabilities," Claire Arbogast said this week. "He's just a little boy, especially around his sister, Madelyn, 13, who babies him.

"We feel he is at the level mentally where he was when the attack happened. His reception is okay, but it's hard for him to communicate and express his thoughts."

"When I visit, I see continued improvement in his condition," said his aunt Diana. "His face lights up when he sees family members."

Jessie receives homebound educational instruction in the mornings and physical and speech therapy in the afternoons at a multipurpose pediatric unit.

His mom said his educators and therapists still think he will be able to function, "but we don't know if he will ever walk."

Jessie has gone through a growth spurt and weighs more than 100 pounds. He is now taking food by mouth, but is still on a feeding tube to make sure he has enough liquid.

"It has been a rough two years for our family," said Jessie's mother, who is a medical code technician at an orthopedic center.

As for further recovery, Dr. Ben Renfroe, pediatric neurologist at Sacred Heart Hospital where Jessie was treated last year, has said dramatic improvements are not likely.

Renfroe couldn't be reached this week, but he told the Pensacola News Journal in December that "our approach is more to preserve everything we can until we get a miracle."

"Jessie appears bright and alert, but his body just won't let it out," Renfroe said.