(CNN) — It’s not clear what caused a deep gash down Eugene Finney’s back while swimming in the ocean with his daughter, but it’s clear the brush with danger helped save his life.
Finney, from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, was visiting his parents in Huntington Beach, California, in July with his two kids and girlfriend, Emeline McKeown, who would be meeting his parents for the first time.
The Finney family shares a love of the ocean. Eugene grew up on the Jersey Shore. Finney’s parents, now retired, fell in love with Huntington Beach and decided to make it their home after his father was stationed at the nearby Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. They took McKeown and the kids for a day of sunbathing and swimming. Eugene’s parents bought Temple, 10, and Turner, 6, boogie boards.
The family arrived at the beach midmorning and before Temple took the new boogie board for its maiden voyage, she asked her dad to go for a swim. They swam about 100 yards off shore amid 7- to 9-foot waves and found themselves in water about 10- to 15-feet deep. Finney turned and saw a large wave approaching and quickly grabbed Temple to dive under the breaking wave.
When he tried to surface, he was hit by a large object. “I was hit in the back hard. Really hard. I’ve never been hit that hard in my life,” Finney said.
The strike pushed Finney and his daughter deeper in the water and his first thought was to get Temple to the surface. The two swam back to shore and when they found themselves in shallow enough water to walk, Temple asked, “Daddy, why is your back bleeding?”
Finney was left with a foot-long gash down his upper back. It caused significant bleeding. He went to one of the bathrooms on the beach to clean the saltwater out of the wound. When he returned to the beach his girlfriend and son both said they saw fins in the area where he had been struck, Finney said.
What caused the injury to Finney’s back isn’t clear to Lt. Claude Panis of the Huntington Beach Marine Safety Division. “There are a number of things that could have caused the injury: stingrays, debris, another swimmer or a surfboard,” he said. Finney did not seek out lifeguards after his injury and the incident was not reported.
Huntington Beach had its fair share of shark sightings this year. Two days after Finney was struck, a surfer was bumped by a juvenile great white shark in the same area where Finney had been swimming. That incident led to the only beach closure in the city of Huntington Beach for the summer.
“In my 38 years, I’ve never seen as many juvenile great white sharks approaching the beaches as I did this year … it’s kind of an anomaly,” Panis said.
Finney and his family returned to the beach that day, two days before returning to the East Coast, and saw shark spotters patrolling the beach.
Soon after, Finney returned to Massachusetts, and to work at the Fitchburg Art Museum. But he had trouble sleeping and was experiencing pain in his chest. His boss, Nick Capasso, encouraged him to go to the hospital.
Finney drove himself to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, Massachusetts. He was given a sedative to calm his irregular breathing, underwent an EKG and chest X-rays. The X-rays showed he had some inflammation around his heart caused by interior bruising of the thoracic cavity due to the blunt force trauma he experienced, Finney said.
While doctors observed his injuries, they made another “incidental discovery.”
They found a small tumor, about the size of a walnut, on his right kidney. His doctor told him it could be cancerous, Finney said.
News of the discovery shook him. “I was thinking ‘You have to be kidding me’… I couldn’t really believe it,” Finney said.
He was referred to Dr. Ingolf Tuerk, director of the robotic-assisted surgery program at St. Elizabeth’s. Tuerk performed minimally invasive robotic surgery in September and removed the tumor, along with 20% of Finney’s right kidney.
A week later the biopsy results came back and it was determined the tumor was cancerous, Tuerk said.
“If he didn’t have the encounter with the shark, and given the fact that he’s a healthy 39-year-old man, the tumor probably would have grown over the next five, six years. The surgery could have been significantly less successful had the tumor not been located early,” Tuerk said.
Finney is still recovering from the surgery but he’s thankful for the love and support of his girlfriend and the incredible care he received at the hospital.
“If it wasn’t for their love and support, I don’t know what would have happened,” Finney said.