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Doctors optimistic about shark victim's recovery

Jessie Arbogast
Jessie has shown signs of increased brain activity each day since his arm was reattached.  

PENSACOLA, Florida (CNN) -- The prognosis was cautiously positive Friday for the 8-year-old victim of a shark attack last week that severed his arm and left him with possible damage to his brain and other organs.

Jessie Arbogast was in critical but stable condition at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital, surrounded by doctors and family members. He had emerged from a deep coma to what doctors called a light coma. They predicted he would make slow, steady progress during the coming months.

The boy, who had just completed second grade in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, was wading in knee-deep water off Pensacola last Friday when he was attacked by a 7-foot bull shark. It severed his right arm just below his shoulder and bit a large chunk of thigh muscle from his right leg.

Doctors reattached the arm in an 11-hour procedure at Pensacola's Baptist Hospital, where he was taken immediately after the attack. Although he has not responded to light stimulation -- an indication of brain activity -- he is responding to deep stimulation and pain, said Dr. Rob Patterson, a pediatric intensivist.

"When you put his arm that was not bitten into an uncomfortable position, he does try to move that into a position of comfort," Patterson said. "He wiggles his toes. As yet, we don't have a sense that on any continuous basis he knows exactly where he is ... but he does respond to outside stimuli."

Dr. Rex Northup, in charge of the boy's care at Sacred Heart Hospital, to where the boy was moved because it has a pediatric intensive care unit, said doctors there changed his wound dressings Thursday at his bedside for the first time. He opened his eyes during the procedure, Northup said.

"That is not the level of consciousness we ultimately hope to see," Northup said, "but it is a higher level of consciousness and more responsiveness than what we've seen previously." Prior dressing changes were done in an operating room.

Doctors feared Jessie may have suffered injury to his brain. Blood loss from the brain can cause sometimes fatal swelling.

Doctors said Friday Jessie's body is creating red blood cells and that ongoing blood loss and anemia have not become a problem. But the boy's kidneys were still not working completely, and he has been on dialysis almost daily.

Doctors planned to remove Jessie's breathing tube Friday afternoon to see whether he can breathe on his own. They expressed confidence that because the boy has a healthy gag reflex he will be able to breathe independently. At present, he initiates every breath and a breathing machine helps his chest to rise as the tube maintains a stable airway.

Jessie shows no sign of infection, the doctors said, and his brain has shown increased signs of activity with each day.

"Every day since Sunday, he's had an increase in faster activity and an increase in some sleep cycling which we're seeing, which are all good signs," said Dr. Ben Renfroe, a pediatric neurologist. He said there has been no evidence Jessie's brain has swelled and that he is pleased with the boy's "slow, steady recovery."

"With God's grace, then, we can really have a young man that's in school next year -- and that's our hope," Renfroe said.

Still, Patterson predicted Jessie would not make any major, immediate advances. "Obviously, we would like to see him ... wake up, be looking around, and talking to us," he said. "That's probably not going to happen [soon]."

Since the shark attack last Friday, tourism at the beachfront has remained steady and bathers continue to enter the water, said Pensacola tourism officials. A shark expert was brought to town Friday to examine might have provoked the attack, which other experts said was unusual in 2 feet of water.

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