‘Massive miracle’: Charlotte-area woman recounts vicious shark attack

Tiffany Johnson, pictured here with husband James, is recovering from a brutal shark attack that occurred off the coast of the Bahamas.
Tiffany Johnson, pictured here with husband James, is recovering from a brutal shark attack that occurred off the coast of the Bahamas.

“I am not going to die here,” Tiffany Johnson said to herself.

The 32-year-old Concord woman’s defiance came two weeks ago during a life-threatening battle with a shark off the coast of the Bahamas.

Johnson would eventually lose much of her right arm, but she had surgery at Carolinas Medical Center last Friday that will allow her to eventually be fitted for a prosthetic arm.

“Honestly, I would live with just a stump, because I’m here and alive, and that’s the most important part,” she said in an interview with the Observer.

Tiffany and her husband, James, took a week-long cruise ending in the Bahamas two weeks ago. The couple was snorkeling off the coast of the islands when Tiffany felt a tug on her arm.

“It didn’t hurt or anything,” she said. “It just felt like I had bumped into something, so I turned to my right to see what I bumped into.”

That’s when she saw the shark, face to face.

“(The shark) had my arm it its mouth,” she said. “It was just floating there, waiting for me to make a move. When I pulled my arm out, that’s when we began to struggle, and I remember seeing, once I pulled my arm out, that it was gone.”

Tiffany swam back to a nearby boat, desperately calling for help.

“Help me, Jesus!” she screamed.

Once her husband and the boat captain lifted her aboard, the group rushed back to shore, wrapping Tiffany’s arm with a beach towel. An ambulance rushed the couple to a nearby hospital, where Tiffany underwent surgery to temporarily stop the bleeding.

After the operation, the couple then made plans to fly back to the United States, which was initially complicated because they didn’t have their passports handy. They were allowed to fly home, however, without them, she said.

After that operation, the next step was to fly back to Charlotte for more surgery.

On June 9, doctors Glenn Gaston and Bryan Loeffler of OrthoCarolina Hand performed a procedure called a targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) on Tiffany, which will allow her brain to control the actions of her prosthetic appendage. OrthoCarolina Hand is one of only a handful of clinics around the world that performs this operation below the elbow.

Glenn Gaston OrthoCarolina Hand

“Even when a limb is gone, nerves are still available for the body to use,” Gaston said in a statement. “Reassigning nerves to another part of the limb allows a patient easier control of their prosthesis. It also permits the nerves to function as they would previously, so the patient can simply think about the action they want the limb to perform and the prosthesis will comply.”

Tiffany, who has three kids, will be fitted for a prosthetic arm within four to six weeks. Throughout the entire situation, she kept a steadfast faith in God, which she says carried her throughout the process

“If anyone is going through a dark period in their life, just know that God is near and they just need to call out to Him, and He will give you the strength, peace and love that you need,” she said.

In the end, she called the entire sequence “a surreal experience.”

“I could’ve died on the surgeon’s table,” she said. “I swam away from the shark. It doesn’t make sense that it didn’t grab me while I was swimming away. I was breathing through the snorkel tube through the entire time and didn’t swallow any water. It’s just a massive miracle.”

Matt Kaminer: 704-358-5258, @MattKaminer