It has been nearly a year since James Bertakis was stabbed in the heart by a stingray, and the 82-year-old grandfather is almost well enough to go fishing again.
“I’m still working on therapy to get loosened up,” Bertakis told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview Friday.
On the studio floor between them during the interview was the spotted eagle ray that nearly killed Bertakis. Mounted by a taxidermist, the ray lacks only the two-inch razor-sharp barb at the end of its long, whippy tail.
Bertakis keeps that as a memento of what happened just after noon on Oct. 28, 2006.
Bertakis was fishing off shore near his Lighthouse Point, Fla., home with two friends when the stingray leaped out of the water and landed in his lap. When Bertakis grabbed it, the fish lashed out with its tail.
Bertakis was not even aware of what had happened, which might have saved his life. One month earlier, Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter,” had been filming an underwater series off the north shore of Australia when he was hit in the chest by a stingray. Irwin pulled the barb out immediately and died within minutes.
“I didn’t know what a barb was,” Bertakis said. “I didn’t know what a stingray had at the time. I felt a little pain. I didn’t know what it was. I just turned around and threw the stingray back in the boat.”
When he threw the fish away, the barb broke off in his chest.
He drove the boat back to shore and docked it, but he knew something was desperately wrong. Bleeding and light-headed, he told one of his friends to call 911 while he lay down on the dock.
His granddaughter, 21-year-old Sarah Bertakis, came out of the house and pressed towels to the wound, which by now was bleeding heavily.
He was taken to North Broward Hospital, where X-rays showed the barb in his chest. He was taken into surgery, but as doctors worked, the barb was literally pulled through his heart as it pumped. Without equipment to allow them to bypass the heart to repair it, surgeons closed the large holes in his heart with the barb still inside and airlifted him to Broward General Hospital.
Bertakis was in surgery from 9 p.m. that night until 3 a.m. the following morning as doctors removed the barb and repaired his damaged heart.
He was put in a medically induced coma, and a day later underwent surgery again to remove a bruised spleen that was causing severe bloating.
On Oct. 22, four days after he was injured, he opened his eyes, but was unable to communicate. Bertakis said he remembers nothing until about a week after he nearly died.
A retired businessman from Grosse Pointe, Mich., Bertakis had remained very active in retirement and never admitted to being any older than 69. During his recovery, his four adult sons took turns coming down from Michigan to stay by his side; he also has eight grandchildren.
He spent two months in the hospital, gradually recovering his ability to talk, walk and function. He said he still hasn’t fully regained his coordination, which is what keeps him from fishing. But as soon as he could after getting discharged, he was back in his boat, figuring having another ray land in his lap was as likely as getting struck twice by lightning.
“He’s the strongest man I know in the whole entire world,” said his granddaughter, Sarah. “He’s always been so determined, motivated, always a leader, not a follower. There’s not one human being, especially at his age, which would have been able to survive that.”
Feeling that he was spared by a miracle, Bertakis has started The Stingray Jim Charity (www.stingrayjim.com) to raise money for charities that help children and the elderly.
Bertakis said he has only one regret.
“That it wasn’t a mermaid instead of a stingray,” he said.