Dr. Latha Palaniappan of Menlo Park and her family were sailing on a catamaran off the coast of the Florida Keys when she was called upon to put her medical training to use.
The family, which loves water sports like scuba diving and snorkeling, was enjoying a trip they'd put off six months due to the pandemic. Palaniappan, a pharmacogenomics specialist at Stanford who is trained in advanced cardiac life support, had been very busy during due to COVID-19 and her family had long looked forward to the June vacation, she said in an interview.
About 70 miles west of Key West, their boat was approached by someone seeking help at the nearby island, where a person had collapsed on the beach and needed medical aid. Fort Jefferson, used to protect the Gulf Coast, is atop an island that's part of Dry Tortugas National Park.
As Palaniappan's 12-year-old son, Rohan Ramanathan, described it, his mom left the boat where they'd been spending their days snorkeling and exploring, witnessing sea creatures and a shipwreck, to go help someone. At the time, he said, he and his 16-year-old sister kept an eye out for what was happening on the island with their binoculars, but couldn't see much.
The person in need turned out to be world-renowned shark biologist Wes Pratt, something Palaniappan said she learned after responding to the emergency.
The biologist has been studying sharks for more than 40 years and has been featured widely in National Geographic magazines and documentary TV programs, according to the National Park Service.
Under Good Samaritan laws, Palaniappan said, trained medical professionals are not required to respond in emergency situations, but it is considered humanitarian to provide aid.
"People may not realize how helpful they can be in these remote areas," she said.
One condition of such laws is that doctors are not permitted to receive any sort of compensation or money for their service, Palaniappan said.
But people can pay it forward, she added.
After providing initial emergency care to the researcher on June 21, she and her family returned to the island the following day to check in on him.
Pratt was grateful to the doctor for her help and ended up giving Rohan a book about sharks.
Later, the family found out that the biologist had also decided to name a shark after Rohan, "to inspire him in his interests of marine biology and the sea," Palaniappan said.
It's pretty unusual to have an Indian name for a shark, likely because there aren't many shark scientists in India, Palaniappan said.
"I think this is probably the world's first shark named Rohan," she said.
The gesture, she said, was very meaningful for her son.
"I'd never seen a happier look on his face," she said. "Nothing could have made this 12-year-old boy happier."
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]