Young swimmer is a different kind of pool shark

Patient Stories |



A 12-year-old South Bend girl suffered a crushing injury to her foot in an accident, but after reconstruction surgeries that included a layer of shark skin, she has returned to the pool.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

It was a cold January night when Isabela Juricevic’s world changed in an instant. A second is all it took for her dad’s truck to slide on an icy road and crash into a highway divider near South Bend.

Isabela and her dad, Igor, weren’t injured in the crash, but as he was calling the police, another vehicle spun out and came careering into them. He lifted her up over the highway wall in the nick of time, but both he and Isabela suffered injuries to their right feet.

His was broken. Hers was crushed.

“My right foot was completely demolished,” the 12-year-old competitive swimmer said. “Bones were sticking out. Skin was torn away. I took one look at it and didn’t want to look at it anymore.”

As she recounts the accident while sitting in the lobby of Riley Hospital for Children, she remembers the kindness of strangers.

“This nice lady opened the back of her car so I could lie down as the ambulance was coming. I got really cold, even though I had on this big, puffy jacket. She was so nice and gave me her soft, fuzzy, black fur coat to put on,” Isabela said.

“Then the ambulance came, and I got the sweet nectar of pain medication through an IV.”

Isabela talks like that. She is disarmingly sweet, charming, intelligent and curious. But she is also fierce and passionate.

All of these attributes helped in her recovery, her dad believes.

It’s been a long road.

“It’s still a little difficult to talk about,” Igor Juricevic said as he sat near his daughter following a routine physical therapy appointment at Riley.

“There were some dark times. Times when her pain level was at a 10 and there was nothing I could do other than just hold her and let her know we’ll get through it,” he said. “When it first happened, the mountain we had to climb boggled my mind. It almost seemed too far, too impossible.”

But Isabela is six months out from her injury now – time that has been spent in surgery, in rehab, and now – back in the pool in her hometown of South Bend.

And she might just have a competitive edge.

During treatment at Riley to repair bones, tissue and skin on her foot, Isabela got something extra.

Shark skin.

“There is nothing in the rule book that says someone who is part shark can’t compete in the pool,” Isabela’s dad said with a laugh.

Riley plastic surgeon Dr. Emma Cordes said surgeons commonly use a skin substitute that contains shark collagen to provide a healthy wound bed before placing a skin graft.

While it won’t give her a competitive edge in the pool, it’s still pretty cool, Isabela said.

Around her neck she wears a shark necklace, a gift from a friend.

It was months before Isabela could get back in the pool. She endured multiple surgeries on her foot, including the amputation of her big toe and parts of her other toes.

Burn unit nurse Angela Seitz describes Isabela as a “remarkable” patient and a “true warrior.”

“She gave me a lesson in forgiveness, love and how to persevere. She not only used her courage to get through a tragic situation but showed others how to be patient and never give up,” Seitz said.

The nurse spent a lot of time with Isabela doing wound care and dressing changes, and in that time, her young patient remained positive, even when it was difficult, and knew how to advocate for herself, Seitz said.

Isabela’s parents, Igor and Raquel, were instrumental in her recovery, she added.

“They were by her side for everything and always gave her strength,” Seitz said. “They were her voice when she was emotionally drained. Isabela is a gift, and I am privileged to take care of her and her family.”

Isabela returns the compliment.

“It’s not fun having your foot crushed and having to learn to walk again, but they were so nice and kind, and it really helped,” she said. “And I got a lot of fidget toys out of the ordeal.”

Isabela started getting around with crutches in March, then advanced to a special boot in April.

The first time she tried walking without the crutches, she said, “it wasn’t pretty.”

But she did it, and she rewarded herself by going to the refrigerator at home and grabbing a pickle.

“It was a celebratory moment,” she said. “And I like pickles.”

The severe limp she started with has disappeared for the most part, but she continues to work on ankle mobility in therapy.

She returned to the pool April 22 and competed in her first meet May 27. Her times might be a bit slower, but she has the drive to compete.

“I’ve been swimming since I was 5 years old,” she said. “I love it because I like the flow of the water and being able to splash like a mermaid.”

When she had to sit out during her recovery, she missed her friends, and she missed the water.

“At first it feels great to lie in your bed and watch TV all day, but at some point, you get sick of it,” she laughed. “You want to move!”

Dr. Cordes, who performed all of Isabela’s reconstructive procedures, is pleased with her recovery.

“She was very motivated to get back in the pool, and I think that served as a good goal to work toward as she healed. I am very happy she has been able to return to something she loves to do.”

Igor Juricevic said watching his little girl come back from so many challenges has inspired him.

“I couldn’t be prouder just to see where she is now and how she handled everything. Isabela has always been very outgoing, very loving, very optimistic, and one of my biggest worries was that this was going to change her and take that joy,” he said.

“It’s most gratifying to know that she is still the same Isabela she was before this. She’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever known.”

Seitz agrees, saying, “Thank you, Isabela, for showing everyone how to be strong, brave and unstoppable.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,

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