By Lee Cataluna
Michael Coots didn't know Hokuanu Aki, though he thinks they may have surfed together a couple of times.
But when Coots heard what happened to the 17-year-old Kaua'i High School senior, he went to the hospital to see if he could help.
Coots was 18 when he was attacked by a shark while bodyboarding at Major's bay on Kaua'i's west side in 1997. He lost his right leg up to the middle of his calf. Coots felt that his experience could somehow comfort Aki.
Besides, he wanted to return the favor.
When Coots was in the hospital following his attack, a stranger came to visit him.
"This guy, I don't even know who he was, I think he lost his leg to cancer or something, but he just showed up at the hospital and he told me, 'Yeah, you're gonna be walking around in no time!' and he was, like, running up and down the hall with his prosthesis showing me how he could move, and I was like, 'Yeah!' "
That stranger served as a powerful example of what is possible after something as catastrophic as losing a limb, and Coots never forgot the man's kindness.
"He helped me out a lot so I was hoping to do the same thing."
Coots waited Tuesday at Wilcox Hospital in Lihu'e for several hours but wasn't able to talk to Aki before he was transferred to The Queen's Medical Center on O'ahu. Coots was able to talk to Aki's father and brother, and he gave them his phone number in case Hokuanu needed to talk to someone who's been there.
"Like what happened to me, I would wake up in the middle of the night or something it's called phantom pain, where it feels like your foot is still there but it's not. There's nobody to really talk to because you can't really explain it, so I told them if he ever feels he needs to talk to somebody about that, maybe I can help him through that."
Coots is an exemplary model for thriving after tragedy. Two months after being attacked, he was back in the ocean on New Year's Day 1998. Yeah, he's thought about sharks, and maybe he got a little scared one time when he was spearfishing, but nothing will keep him out of his beloved ocean.
Coots is 22 now, in college and majoring in journalism with an emphasis in photography. He walks with a prosthesis and says nothing gets in his way. He takes off the prosthesis at the beach and says he tries to surf every day.
"I go bodyboarding, so I just take it off. Actually, I go a little faster; so it's kind of an advantage. Less drag in the water with just one leg!" He chuckles at this in a way that says so much: He's fine. He's healthy. He's happy to be alive.
Coots hopes to meet Aki when he comes home, but until then, he sent this message with Aki's family:
"Everything is going to be OK, and he'll be back surfing before he knows it, so to just stay strong."