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Human Interest

North Carolina Mom of 3 Who Fought Off Shark While on Vacation Speaks Out: ‘I Remember Pulling My Arm Out of His Mouth’

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Tiffany Johnson remembers every second of the shark attack that took most of her right arm.

“I was just floating there and then I felt this bump and when I looked to see what I’d bumped into I was face-to-face with the shark,” she tells PEOPLE.

The 32-year-old mother of three from Concord, North Carolina, was on the final day of a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean with her husband, JJ, in early June. They had gone parasailing earlier in the day and were snorkeling not far from the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas when the attack occurred.

Tiffany and JJ before the attack.
Courtesy Tiffany Johnson

JJ, 29, was queasy and back on the small boat that had taken them to the coral reef known for good snorkeling when Johnson says she literally saw her life start to flash before her eyes.

“I had fear immediately when we began to struggle,” she says. “I felt the strength of the Lord, this supernatural strength — you start almost replaying your life in your mind and I literally pushed that back and was like, ‘No, I’m not going to die here. This is not the end for me. I refuse for him to take my life.’ ”

She says she thought of her three kids — ages 2, 4 and 5, and knew she had to fight back against the shark.

“I remember feeling my eyes get big and having that realization, that moment that my arm was in a shark’s mouth. I yanked my arm back, he bit down harder, and we began to struggle,” she says.

Tiffany Johnson and her husband JJ post surgery.
Courtesy Tiffany Johnson

“I was finally able to break free and that’s because he had completely taken it and I remember pulling it out of his mouth and looking at it and realizing it was gone. I didn’t feel pain – it kind of caught me off guard and I didn’t really think of anything other than I needed to get away.”

That’s when she started screaming – and swimming towards the boat with her husband and the others on the excursion. The shark had taken her arm off just below the elbow.

“I remember the look of terror in [JJ’s] eyes. I’ve never seen that look before. He looked over and he says he saw my arm half gone and blood surrounding me. The water was just red everywhere. He screamed, ‘Baby!’ And then just jumped into the water.”

Johnson never lost consciousness and doctors in the Bahamas did surgery within a few hours to stop the bleeding, but they told her she needed to go back to the U.S. immediately for another surgery.

Courtesy Tiffany Johnson

But because they’d been on a cruise, the couple didn’t have their passports and the embassy was closed for a long weekend because of a holiday. They were stranded until Johnson says a number of people pulled together to help get her medevaced out of the Bahamas and to Charlotte where she has since undergone two more surgeries.

Doctors Glenn Gaston and Bryan Loeffler are hand and upper extremity surgeons with OrthoCarolina in Charlotte who operated on Johnson in hopes of getting her as much movement as possible. The two performed a surgery that is only done at a few medical centers across the country and will hopefully allow her to use a prosthetic in much of the same way she used to use her own hand.

Gaston explains, “The cool thing about what we did for her – we left the sensors that effect the muscles underneath the skin and by rerouting where those nerves go, we can change the function of the muscles so when her brain tells her to lift her thumb up — the sensors can detect that. It becomes highly intuitive to use because your brain is sending the signal – it’s going to a different muscle that’s now connected to the prosthetic.”

Loeffler says most amputees don’t even know that recent advancements can dramatically decrease their pain and increase their function.

“Tiffany is amazing person,” he tells PEOPLE. “She is so positive and incredibly inspirational and over the years we’ve seen those are the patients that tend to be the most successful.”

Johnson will get her prosthetic in the next four weeks. “It’s going to take a long time to work and it won’t be exactly the same, but it will be pretty close and that’s amazing,” she says.

Friends have set up a GoFundMe page in hopes of getting Johnson a better prosthetic than the one her insurance will cover.

Tiffany, JJ and their three children.
Courtesy Tiffany Johnson

The devoted mother’s focus now is making sure her kids are okay with the new normal.

“That was one of the hardest parts about coming home as a mom,” she says. “I didn’t want it to impact my kids’ life. I still want to be able to care for them and not have any limitations. But they don’t care, they just keep saying, ‘We love you mama.’ ”

And she says they are excited about her new hand.

“My oldest daughter wants it to be pink with sparkles,” she laughs.

Johnson says she is it’s her faith that got her through the attack and what is helping her to remain optimistic during an incredibly difficult time.

“It’s been an experience I obviously wouldn’t want to wish on anybody, but I’m just grateful to be alive and hopefully my story will serve as inspiration for others,” she says. “We need more light in this world.”