North Carolina woman loses arm to shark

A North Carolina woman lost her arm to a shark June 2 in the Bahamas.

Tiffany Johnson and her husband James were on the last stop of their 7-day cruise when they decided to go parasailing and snorkeling.

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Tiffany and her husband James. (supplied)

The couple found a local guide who took them with another couple to Athol Island.  Although James was feeling seasick during the 20-minute trip out to the reef, he was able to enjoy the water with his wife while they explored the area around a small private island.

When James started feeling queasy, he headed back to the boat.

“I just stayed out for a little bit longer because there was a part of the reef I hadn’t seen yet,” Tiffany explained.

Ten minutes later, the unthinkable happened to Tiffany, who is a healthcare project manager.

“I was just floating there for the most part. I wasn’t moving my arms and legs very much, because I didn’t want to disturb the fish,” she said.

“I felt like a tug or bump on my arm. I honestly thought I had bumped into something, that’s what it felt like,” the mother of three recalled from her hospital bed.

Little did she know a grey medium-sized shark, possibly a tiger, was beside her.

“I causally looked to the right and I was face to face with a shark, and he had my arm in his mouth.

“He didn’t struggle at first. He was just kind of sitting there with my arm in his mouth, almost as if he was waiting for me to do something.  It was very strange.

“It registered what was going on, so I went to pull my arm back and that’s when the struggle began.

“We struggled for some time, it wasn’t very long, and then I was able to break free because he had taken my arm,” she said.

The shark had removed Tiffany’s forearm just below her right elbow.

Tiffany threw off her snorkeling gear and screamed for help.  She said she drew upon her Christian faith as said she prayed for help.

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Tiffany and James before debarking in the Bahamas. (supplied)

Her husband, who had just gotten out of the water after getting sick, was standing on a small boat’s ladder speaking to the captain when he heard his wife’s screams.

“As I looked over at her, I just saw the blood all around in the water and that part of her arm was gone,” James said.

Tiffany said “I was really scared that the shark was going to follow me. Blood attracts sharks. I knew I had to get out of the water as fast as possible. It did not follow me, by the grace of God, because it doesn’t make sense to me. It didn’t grab my leg while I was pulling away or anything.”

James went into shock at the sight of his wife in danger and even though he reports being “scared to death of sharks,” he knew he had to act.

“I just went into survival mode,” he recalled. He quickly jumped in the water and swam to his wife.

James met her when she was about halfway back to the boat.

“She was swimming with one hand. Her other hand raised above the water and she was praying the entire time while swimming back; it was just unreal. My biggest concern was to get her back to the boat, hoping and just praying the shark wasn’t following us,” he said.

He was able to help her up the ladder of the 12- to 15-foot boat.

Once on-board Tiffany calmly asked for a towel and for it to be wrapped as tightly as possible around her severed appendage.

“My gosh there was blood all over the boat, but my wife was just so calm the whole time,” he said.

The captain pointed the boat toward the closest island, which, unfortunately, did not have the proper medical facilities.

They then headed to Nassau, and after a 20-minute boat ride, finally made it to the island. First responders were called.

They took the couple to the Princess Margaret Hospital. Surgeons at the hospital were able to clean the wound and saved as much tissue as possible.

Even though the couple was now at the hospital, they were still in shock and facing a new issue.

Because they had been on a cruise, they did not have passports and they needed to be able to return to the United States as soon as possible for further treatment.

Also, a medevac to the U.S. requires patients to be delivered to the first port of entry, which would have been Miami. That would require the couple to then take a 10-hour car ride to their home in North Carolina.

“There were just so many people working around the clock trying get me out of there, it was just overwhelming,” Tiffany recalled. “The support . . . it was totally God.”

At last, the couple was evacuated to the North Carolina Medical Center in Charlotte, located 30 minutes from their home, and because of the proximity to home, Tiffany and James’ three children were able to visit their mother in the hospital.

James, who is territory manager for Pro-Vigil Surveillance Service, said it was a delicate situation with their children, and once the children arrived at the hospital, “they just stayed on the bed and hugged her. It was a real emotional, just special time,” he said.

Doctors were able to develop a treatment plan.

“The Bahamas surgeons did a really good job and everything is still intact. I have a lot of nerves and muscles,” Tiffany said. “They are shorter than the bones, but they are very hopeful that I will be able to get a prosthetic, and they will be able to attach it to the nerves. I’ll be able to actually use my brain to function the prosthetic.”

Unfortunately, the couple is limbo as to whether insurance will cover the emergency treatment in the Bahamas.  Friends have set up a GoFundMe page to help with current and future medical bills.

Tiffany hopes to turn the loss of her arm into a way to share her faith and love of God with others.

“I am convinced I have a testimony to share. I am expecting God to do great things. If testimony is one way people’s lives can be changed, then I want that.

“I believe that is why I am alive. It’s because I relied on him during that situation, I didn’t freak, and I was able to remain calm. And that is only by God’s strength and peace in me, that is why I am alive. I am convinced of that,” she said.

In 2016 there were two other shark attack bites reported near Nassau. On August 7, 15-year-old Johnny Stoch was bitten on the leg and had part of his calf muscle torn off.  Dr. Steve Cutbirth was bitten on the face by a bull shark. The dentist had just shot a fish when the shark grabbed his face.

North Carolina was the location of two severe shark attacks in 2015. On June 14, two teens, Hunter Treschl and Kiersten Yow both lost arms to sharks.

There have been a total of 48* shark attack bites in 2017, 5 of which were fatal*; 21 were reported in the US, with 15 occurring in Florida** and one in Hawaii. Nine occurred in Australia, one of which was fatal and one with no injury.  Three unconfirmed worldwide and not included in the total count

All locations have been marked on the 2017 Shark Attack Bites Tracking Map.

*Two may be scavenge    **One report may have been outside of Florida waters.

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