TAYLOR STUCK, The Herald-Dispatch
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — When Tiffany Johnson came up out of the ocean after a shark tore off her right arm, the first thing she shouted was "Help me, Jesus, help me!"
"Our God is able," Johnson said. "It says in Romans 8:26 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. We don't always know what to pray, but he knows, and he intercedes for us. I read that verse after all this, and I felt those prayers. I felt the prayers of all of you guys. I felt the prayers of the Holy Spirit interceding as I was in the water. I didn't have words. All I had was my spiritual language. That's what came out."
Johnson shared her testimony of how God brought her through the scariest time in her life during worship service Sunday at New Life Church, the place where Johnson met and married her Ironton-native husband, J.J. Johnson.
Currently residing in North Carolina with their three children, the couple was on a cruise in the Bahamas in May when the attack occurred. They had been snorkeling off Nassau, but her husband had returned to the boat after getting seasick.
Johnson said she was admiring the coral reef, the fish and God's creation, just 10 feet from the boat, when she felt something bump against her.
"When I turned to my right, I was face to face with the shark," she said. "He had my whole arm in his mouth... Of course, fear just fell over me. He just stared at me. He wasn't thrashing. Just staring at me with my arm in his mouth with these dark beady eyes that were just darting everywhere then staring, darting everywhere then staring. It was just this evilness, and it felt like time stood still."
She was able to pull her arm free after fighting with the shark, but realized half of it didn't come with her. She flipped up out of the water, called for help and starting swimming toward the boat. Her husband met her halfway after jumping in when he saw all the blood.
When she finally got in the boat, all she felt was peace.
"It was like a thick, tangible cloud," Johnson said. "I've never experienced anything like it. When the Lord says a peace that surpasses all understanding that was it. I was living that. I remember looking at J.J., no tears, no shock, no panic, just in this same tone of voice I said, find me something to stop the bleeding."
The only thing on the boat was a beach towel. They used it as a tourniquet the best they could and made the 30-minute journey back to the island.
By all accounts, she should have bled out on that boat.
"I didn't even need a blood transfusion," she said. "That's my God. He had his hands all over it. I didn't fight infection. When I was discharged from the American hospital, they didn't send me with any antibiotics because I had never fought infection until now, so there was no point."
That's just a portion of the miracles that followed Johnson.
Once in the hospital, the Johnsons quickly realized the island medical professionals were not equipped to help her to the fullest extent. She had no pain management. The surgeon couldn't even close her wound because of the swelling, just stopping the bleeding. She said she was in extreme pain.
To top it off, the hospital told her it would take four days until they could get her to an American hospital because the American embassy was off on a long weekend, and they didn't have passports.
"I told my pastor, and he said 'That's not good enough,'" Johnson said." I said, 'That's what I said!'"
Her pastor realized he knew someone who flew med-vac helicopters. The pilot happened to have a contact in the Bahamas because his fiancé lived in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Mountains started moving," Johnson said. "The first mountain was no passport. That got approved. We were able to come back without our passports because customs approved us. Then the next mountain that came up was the financial piece."
The company told them it would cost $16,000 to get them back. While they would pay to get back, they also didn't want to spend the rest of their lives paying it back, so they asked if something could be worked out.
"He called back and said his boss approved the flight, and they are going to go ahead and take care of it," she said. "Sixteen grand. This is how these people make a living. They didn't know us, at all. They said if insurance got back and said they wouldn't cover it, we didn't have to worry about it. They would cover it. I remember J.J. getting off the phone and just weeping. He said, 'They're taking us home, baby.' "
Med-vac flights from Nassau always go to Miami, the nearest American city. But God was still moving mountains, and the Johnsons got flown all the way home to Charlotte, where three of the best prosthetic surgeons happen to live.
She got out of the hospital in Charlotte the day she was supposed to be flown out of the Bahamas.
Today, Johnson has a prosthetic arm that she can control, and she's spreading her message of the power of God.
"I look back at my response, and the first thing I said was 'Help, help me Jesus!'" Johnson said. "That ministers to me. I cried tears about how the first thing that came out was him. Thank you, Jesus, that I relied on you when I had nothing else."