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Man stabbed in chest, heart by stingray barb

Th ough in critical condition, he i s still alive, doctors say, because he didn't remove the barb.

By TIMES WIRES
Published October 20, 2006


LIGHTHOUSE POINT - James Bertakis tried to swat a stingray away after it flopped onto his boat Wednesday.

For his trouble, the 3-foot-wide ray stung him, leaving a barb in his chest that eventually lodged in his heart.

Bertakis, 81, remained in critical condition on Thursday.

"It was a freak accident," said Lighthouse Point acting fire Chief David Donzella.

"We still can't believe it."

Serious stingray attacks like this one and the one that killed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin last month are rare, marine experts say. Rays reflexively deploy a sharp spine in their tails when frightened, but the venom coating the barb usually causes just a painful sting for humans.

Bertakis of Lighthouse Point was on the water in a 16-foot boat with his granddaughter and a friend Wednesday when the stingray flopped onto the boat.

The barb lodged in Bertakis' heart, said Dr. Eugene Costantini at Broward General Medical Center. It originally punctured Bertakis' lung. Bertakis' labored breathing caused it to migrate through the left ventricle, Costantini said. It later penetrated the opposite wall.

Doctors saw the 2½-inch barb sticking out of his heart when they began surgery, the doctor said.

"We pulled it through just like a fish hook," Costantini said.

Bertakis' case differed from Irwin's in an important way, doctors said. The barb stayed in Bertakis' heart and was not pulled out. In Irwin's case, the barb was pulled out almost immediately.

Doctors rarely see puncture wounds from a stingray barb, but they often treat similar wounds made from knives and other sharp objects. Generally, an object that because lodged in the body should not be pulled out except under medical supervision. Pulling the object out creates holes that can cause serious bleeding, doctors said.

Relatives stood vigil at the hospital, relaying details back to Michigan, where the family owns Bertakis Development Inc. James Bertakis founded the company, which specializes in manufactured homes and has property in Michigan and Texas.

"We're all in a state of shock right now," said his son, John Bertakis. "We hope health and strength are on his side, he's a strong man."

Catherine Bertakis described her grandfather as an athlete who rarely gets sick.

"He lives in this 35-year-old body," she said. "He should live to be 120 years old."

Information from the Associated Press, Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.