It would be hard to blame Tiffany Johnson if she wanted to spend a few fleeting moments every now and then wondering: What if?
What if, for instance, she’d climbed back onto that tour boat with her husband J.J. after he fell ill while they were snorkeling in the Bahamas? What if the captain had picked this particular part of the reef over which to float his boat, instead of that one?
Would the Charlotte mother of three still have her right forearm? That is, would she never have had to endure the terrifying experience of a shark tearing the limb from her body two years ago?
Yet, the thing is, Johnson doesn’t wrestle with those types of questions — ever — because she has what she feels is a definitive answer.
A divine answer.
“When I think back, would I change it? No. I wouldn’t change it. I would do it all over again, because I see how God’s using it,” says the 34-year-old project manager, who has maintained that her religious faith is what gave her the strength to make it out of the water alive. “I see the lives that are being impacted by me sharing my story. Even if I’ve helped just one person, it’s worth it.”
And since the June 2, 2017, attack, Johnson says she’s continued finding comfort and strength and purpose thanks to her faith at every turn — through a media frenzy, a return trip to the Bahamas, a return to snorkeling, her quest for a perfectly fitting prosthetic limb, and her very-recent decision to tell her kids how she really lost her arm.
This is the story of Johnson’s recovery, in her own words, as told to the Observer (with portions edited for clarity and brevity).
The first reporter that called was a guy from TrackingSharks.com. I’d never heard of it. He somehow tracked us down in the hospital in Charlotte, only a few hours before we were discharged. He said, “Up until now, there’ve been reports, but they’ve not had your name — nobody’s linked it to you.” But he followed the trail and figured out it was me, and he’s like, “I want permission to use your name in the story.” At first I thought, I just don’t know if I’m ready for this. I’m not even out of the hospital yet.
But he told me that he was a Christian, and he gave me the best advice, before the onslaught happened. He said, “If it’s important to you to have your faith in this, then how you say it is going to make all the difference. Insert the name of Jesus, insert the Lord, and say it often, because when they try to cut it out, they won’t be able to. And make sure you negotiate that at the very beginning.” I thought, Wow. This was a godsend.
So at the end of the conversation, I said, “OK, I think I’m comfortable for you to share my story, for you to be the first one.”
Then when the media onslaught happened, I had the tools to navigate that. When people would reach out, at the beginning of the conversations I would tell them, “Listen, I’m gonna be talking about my faith, I’m gonna be talking about Jesus and God, and if you’re not comfortable with that, then we don’t have a story to tell you, because that is the story.” It kind of set a precedent right up front, so months later, when we would get interviews, I would start to say that and they’re like, “Yeah, we already know.”
Looking back, that was totally the Lord’s doing, that this random guy from TrackingSharks.com was the first one to call.
There was actually a website (the now-defunct FakeStoryOfTheDay.com) that posted an article later that summer claiming my story was fake. I was scrolling to the bottom to leave a comment on it and I saw they had a picture of Lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump” with a little header that said, “CGI?” (That’s short for computer-generated imagery). I’m like, Are you kidding me? Do you think “Inside Edition” and the “Today” show have nothing better to do with their time than CGI something like that?
So I left a comment on his site and just said, “I’m Tiffany Johnson, and I can verify that everything that has been shared so far has been directly from me, and it’s true. If you want to talk about it, here’s my information.” And he actually reached out to me. He said the reason why he started looking into it as a fake story is because there was a picture that was released of me getting out of the hospital in a wheelchair with a big huge club arm, and I had this giant smile on my face. He said, “There’s no way you could be that happy coming out of a situation like that.”
I said, “I was actually just full of the Lord’s joy, because I was alive, and my perspective has shifted because of that. Just because it doesn’t seem feasible, when you’ve got the Lord, all bets are off.”
He ended up retracting the article.
We went on a cruise in April of last year with some friends, and Nassau was the first stop. And I remember looking at my husband as we were planning it and saying, “We’re gonna go back to Nassau only 10 months later?” I wasn’t fearful, but it was just like, Am I ready for that? But the more I started thinking about it and praying about it, I really felt at peace about going back.
So I got up early the morning we were supposed to arrive, and I went out to the balcony and started doing a Bible study. As we were pulling in, I could see Nassau, I could see Paradise Island, and it was really emotional. I’m just staring at it thinking, Wow, this is where it was supposed to end, but God redeemed us and we’re able to stand here today.
On that same cruise, we stopped in Grand Cayman and there was a preserve where you could snorkel with turtles that was across the street from the ocean — there was no way anything was in there that they didn’t allow in; it was man-made. I’m like, “Let’s do it. I love snorkeling. I know that there’s no danger. And I think this is a perfect first step back into what we love to do.”
After putting the mask on and going under the water, I started hearing my breath through that snorkel tube, and negative thoughts started hitting me. But I remember thinking, No. I’m not going to let myself go down that rabbit hole, because this is God’s creation, this is what we love to do, and I need to enjoy it. I can’t let myself be paralyzed in fear. In The Word, it says to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ, and that’s exactly what I did: I was like, Alright, I’m taking the negative thoughts and I’m throwing them out.
I enjoyed it, and it was fun, and after we got out, I was like, I did it! I was just ecstatic to get another notch in the healing belt. It wasn’t in the open ocean, but I went snorkeling again.
Other than that, I haven’t dealt with any depression, I haven’t dealt with any PTSD. And that, to me, is a huge miracle. I am so thankful that the Lord’s covered me in peace so that I can function.
It’s not to say that I don’t battle the thoughts of frustration and feelings of, Ahhhhhhh, this just sucks. Because I’m a mom of three, and there’s times when things get overwhelming. This morning, for example, my husband had to leave early, so I had to do the girls’ hair. And I can’t even do my own hair let alone their hair, so I’m using my teeth and trying to do a ponytail and it’s lopsided, and I’m thinking, Well, it is what it is. It can get pretty frustrating.
But I’ve had to stop sometimes and ask myself: Is it worth getting frustrated over? I’m here, and I’m alive. At least they have their mom. Who cares if their mom can’t do their hair? It’s not always easy. Sometimes it only lasts a few minutes, sometimes I get in a funk. But it’s nothing that has taken me out or put me into a depressive state. And I attribute that all to my faith, really. Without that, I don’t think I would be functioning in society right now.
Right after the year mark of the accident, we officially launched the ministry. I made a web page, we gave it a name — Be An Overcomer Ministries — and gave it a vision: Our goal is to ignite hope into people who are in tough situations by sharing our story. I really believe that all of this happened for a reason.
I mean, we don’t think that God sent the shark. We serve a God that’s loving. He wouldn’t send something our way to teach us a lesson. But sometimes he allows things to happen. We just have to trust that ultimate plan. And that’s a hard thing to do sometimes, because you have to get outside of yourself and think, This could be bigger than me.
That’s the moment that I had to have with God right after it happened. I said, Lord, I trust you in this. I don’t understand why it had to happen the way it did, why I had to endure this. You could have done it another way. But I trust that you know what you’re doing.
And we talk about that a lot — the choice and the response. Because sometimes we don’t have a choice in the circumstance we’re in. I didn’t have a say in whether that shark was going to attack me or not. It just happened. Life just happens sometimes. But the choice we do have is in our response.
There are still some things that I struggle with — like doing my hair, for example — because I don’t have my newer version of my prosthetic. They’re working on it right now.
It’s been a process. We’ve been working on trying to get a fit since the fall, when I had surgery to give me more flexibility in my elbow — because the joint was damaged during the attack, I could only bend my arm to a 90-degree angle. So they went in and cleaned out all the scar tissue and repaired some things in there. And after intense physical therapy, I did get more mobility, but it’s very difficult for a prosthetic to fit in the small space below my elbow that I have to be able to use that mobility.
I’m on like Version 3 with this new prosthetic. So that has been a little bit frustrating, because I thought I would have something that I could use by now. But this one, if we can get it to work, I’ll be able touch my face, my hair — so it would be a huge game-changer for me to be able to start learning how to do things on my person with my prosthetic arm.
I’m hoping to get it within the next week or two.
I have an artificial hand, by the way, that can attach to my prosthetic almost like an attachment for a blender — it just screws on. With it (thanks to targeted muscle reinnervation, a revolutionary procedure performed by Bryan Loeffler and Glenn Gaston of the OrthoCarolina Reconstructive Center for Lost Limbs), when I think open and close, it responds by opening and closing. There are different grip patterns, so I can grip this way or I can grip that way.
But the hand is very gross motor skill-driven. I don’t have the fine motor skills, so I can’t really be precise with this. There’s no technology yet to do individual fingers. It’s coming, and my nerves are set up that way. I can feel individual fingers even within my arm, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up yet.
For now, though, I just keep my hand in a bin, because I don’t have my arm to even attach it to.
Last week, we finally told our kids (Kylee, 7, Luke, 6, and Natalie, 4) the story. Up until then, they just knew it was an accident in the water. We were very careful of just trying to protect their minds, because at the time that it happened, our oldest was 5, our youngest was 1. They were so young. And I didn’t want to put them in a place where I was a constant reminder of fear.
They had lots of questions, especially my son — he’s the one that’s inquisitive and would fire questions at us and stuff. We would answer some, and some we would say, “Bud, you don’t have to worry about the details. All you need to worry about is Mommy is here because God saved her.” Even a few months ago, my son was like, “How old do I need to be until you tell me the whole thing?” I said, “It’s not about your age, it’s about when God says it’s time. When we have a peace about it, we’ll let you know.”
But for the last month or so, I had been feeling like it was time. When I told J.J. about it, he said he felt the same way. So last Monday night, we sat them down and we walked through the story. They don’t need to know all the details — just that it was a shark attack; I should have died; God saved me. It was so peaceful. But I got a little emotional when I was telling them that God used it, and that there’s been a lot of people whose lives have been changed because I’ve been able to share the story.
It’ll be a matter of time before we get back into the ocean. I just don’t think that I’m quite ready to take that step now. I’m trying to use some wisdom in saying, “OK, Lord, you guide me in this.” When I feel like there’s peace in that, then I will.
I mean, I know that the chances of it happening to me once were crazy. But then for it to happen again would be even more so. We just have to be wise, and be protective of our minds, because the one miracle that sometimes I think we take for granted is the peace we’ve had in all this. I don’t want to jeopardize that.
There was a little boy last summer who got attacked in knee-deep water, and stories like that affect me the most, because I think of my little kids. I don’t want them to be fearful of the ocean, but I’m a little fearful for them, just because I would never want them to be in the situation that I was in.
Again, I know that the chances of it ever happening to anybody even that I know are slim to none. But it’s still fresh. So when I heard about the girl in North Carolina who lost her leg recently, I felt for her, deeply, because I know what she’s going through. It made me think back on all of what happened, and it’s funny — sometimes it feels like just a bad dream. I’ll wake up and I’ll look down and my arm’s still not there, and I’m like, Oh yeah, it did happen.
And so when I think back on that — when I hear about somebody else getting attacked — it makes me reflect back. I think, Gosh, I’m lucky to be alive.
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes