VERO BEACH — About 2 1/2 months since she was pulled from the ocean after being severely bitten by a shark north of Humiston Park, Karin Ulrike Stei is walking on crutches and looking forward to a time when she can meet the people who saved her life.
"I'm doing much better," said the 47-year-old Konstanz, Germany, woman, who has undergone a series of operations since being pulled from the water on May 9.
"Thank God, somebody got me out," Stei said Wednesday from her home country in her first public interview since the attack.
Stei has been vacationing in Vero Beach for the past few years; she stays with some good friends who have a place here. She speaks fondly of the city and before May 9 never had a problem swimming in the ocean here.
That morning she was out for a swim and preparing to head back to shore when she felt something hit her left leg.
"It was so powerful and so big I knew it had to be a shark," said Stei, who never saw the creature that tore off most of her left thigh.
"I never saw it," she said. "It never surfaced."
Stei, however, was able to raise her leg enough to see the massive wound and knew she had to get "back to the beach as fast as possible."
"I raised my arm and yelled 'shark' and there was all this blood in the water," Stei said.
She was trying to paddle back to the beach as hard as she could as lifeguard Erik Toomsoo and Michigan tourist Dave Daniels were swimming out to get her. Toomsoo grabbed Stei and began swimming her in and, with the assistance of Daniels and others, got her up on the beach.
"I really only felt safe when I hit the sand," she remembers.
Stei also recalls being acutely aware of what was going on around here despite being in intense pain.
"It was so bad. It was the worst I ever felt in my life," Stei said. On a scale of 1 to 10, she described the pain as more than 15.
She has a vivid memory of Toomsoo applying pressure with towels brought down by others to help stanch the bleeding. Daniels also applied pressure on her skin to stem the flow of blood.
Stei says now that Toomsoo was someone she probably passed by a few times while at the beach, never knowing how important a role he would play in her life.
"I thought, 'My God, all these people are here to help me and I was so lucky to be swimming in an area where there were other people around'," Stei said. "I was extremely thankful for them."
Stei knows Toomsoo has said he was only doing his job that day, "but you know the way you do that (job) is what matters, too."
Toomsoo, she notes, "was swimming toward the danger, not away from it."
Lifeguard Jordan Farrow began applying oxygen, aided by off-duty lifeguard Shanna Beard, who also is a registered nurse. Stei remembers Beard kneeling down next to her, comforting her and asking her questions to try to keep her awake.
Beard's words of reassurance, that everything was going to be OK, meant a great deal to her, Stei said.
"She was very, very great," she said.
"She was this person who had this warmth," said Stei, who described Beard as exuding a great gentleness combined with great competence.
The third person she remembers very vividly is Vero Beach Police Officer Craig Urbanczyk, who, in addition to communicating with Indian River County Fire Rescue about Stei's injury, grabbed an umbrella to provide shade for her and the lifeguards.
She thought how considerate it was of the officer to try to protect her from the sun at that time. "I thought that was very, very nice," Stei said.
Beard and others also have given credit to Stei for her staunch demeanor in the face of such an incident. Stei herself remembers trying to look down at her wound while on the beach, but being dissuaded by rescuers.
"I said I just wanted to see it for scientific purposes," Stei said. "I wasn't panicking."
Stei also expressed gratitude to others who helped her at the beach, to those who transported her to the hospital, and the people who took care of her at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce. The care she received at Lawnwood was praised by doctors who treated her in Germany and was the first big step toward her recovery.
While the shark's bite went all the way into the bone, Stei said the nerves in her leg survived. The image of the shark's bite can still be seen along the scar in her leg, she said.
"I can't even be mad at the shark," Stei said. "They do what they do."
Stei did write a short letter about a week ago to Toomsoo expressing her gratitude and noting that she had just been released from a special clinic where skin from her right thigh was transplanted onto her wound.
An editor at a local newspaper in Germany, Stei said she will be undergoing rehabilitation with the hope that she can one day walk without crutches.
her letter to Toomsoo, she wrote that "I don't know yet if my leg will be as strong as before the attack, but the prospects are good."Stei said Wednesday she doesn't know when her injury will allow her to fly back to Vero Beach, but she does intend to return and personally meet and thank those who put forth such efforts to save her life.
"I want to show them what came out of it, you know," said Stei, who indicated she will probably be content to merely sunbathe if she returns to the beach.
Still, Stei said the incident gave her a new outlook on life.
"You start to appreciate life more and what is important and what is not," Stei said.
Stei's birthday is in March, but since being saved from near death she believes her rescuers gave her another birthday to celebrate May 9.
"They gave me a new life," she said.