At the precipice of becoming a teenager, it can be a challenging time for any 12-year-old girl as they learn to handle new emotions but Hannah Papps displays determination, resilience and strength well beyond her young years.
On September 20 last year, the Victorian school girl was sailing on a chartered yacht in the Whitsundays with her father, two older brothers and other family members who were visiting from New Zealand when she was bitten by a shark.
“We’ve visited the area many times and have sailed the Whitsundays for about six or seven years. Cid Harbour is our favourite anchorage,” her father David Papps said.
“It was a lovely day. We’d just been for a walk to the top of Whitsunday Peak and were cooling down with a swim from the boat after lunch.”
The family was not aware of the shark attack on a 46-year-old Tasmanian tourist, Justine Barwick, at the pristine and very popular anchorage just 24 hours before.
“Hannah was very close to the back of the boat when it (the attack) happened,” David said.
“We got her onto the boat within seconds. It was a very traumatic injury and obvious that we needed help quickly. My sister, who is a vet, stopped the bleeding and we got on the marine radio first then mobile phone straight away.
“The emergency services people were very good. We were very lucky that the police launch was nearby and they were alongside within about 30 minutes. The helicopter was there soon after.”
RACQ CQ Rescue was tasked about 2pm to fly 100km north of Mackay, to retrieve Hannah who had been bitten on the leg. The Mackay-based rescue helicopter was able to land on the sandy shore of Whitsunday Island and Whitsunday Water Police ferried the helicopter’s doctor and paramedic out to the vessel.
The medical team on board the RACQ CQ Rescue helicopter described Hannah’s injury as “absolutely horrific”. Her injuries were life-threatening.
Hannah was transferred to the shore in an inflatable where she was administered pain relief and treated by the medical team for more than 20 minutes. She had lost a lot of blood and lost consciousness before being loaded in the aircraft.
“The rescue helicopter was an absolute lifesaver – the crew were just fantastic,” David said.
Hannah was in the hospital for almost two months. She had initial surgery in Mackay Base Hospital to stabilize her damaged leg then she was transferred to the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane where she underwent treatment by specialist plastic surgeons. Further surgery included an above knee amputation.
“We were then transferred to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne where Hannah has been working with physios and prosthetists to get a prosthetic leg fitted and undergo rehabilitation. She got the ok to take her new leg home in February. She was pretty chuffed,” David said.
Hannah’s zest for life and dedication to living it to the fullest is nothing short of inspirational. She returned to school part-time in December, just three months after the incident, and began Year 8 full-time this year with what she describes as a “bionic” leg.
“She’s pretty active now – playing the trumpet in the school band and a community band and looking forward to a school camp in a few months. It’s an overnight river rafting trip and she’s determined to take part fully,” her proud father said.
“Hannah is a very resilient person. It’s been an awful lot for a 12-year-old to go through but she’s just got on with life. That’s just how she is,” he said.
The Papps family, including Hannah’s mother Tracy Tulloch, has been overwhelmed by the support shown to them in their moment of need.
“I just can’t express how thankful we are to CQ Rescue, the water police and all the medical professionals who helped us. We have had fantastic support from our community and of course all the hospital staff. It’s truly overwhelming,” David said.
“It was really a one in a million thing. I guess you think that sort of thing happens to other people, not yourself or your family.
“The rescue helicopter is obviously a vital lifesaving service covering some very remote areas in Central Queensland. It’s not something you normally think about when you plan a holiday – but I’m very grateful and definitely will from now on.”