On Jan. 8 Anne Hjelle set out for a mountain bike ride in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, not far from her home in Mission Viejo, Calif. She had made the trip many times before, but this ride would transform her life: The 125-lb. personal trainer and ex-Marine was attacked by a 122-lb. mountain lion that several hours earlier had killed biker Mark Reynolds, 35. Hjelle came within millimeters of death, but remarkably the lion's fangs missed her carotid artery and trachea. She was spared—thanks to riding partner Debi Nicholls, now 49, five male bikers, firefighter rescuers and surgeons. Hjelle, now 31, attributes her recovery largely to her Christian faith and the love of her husband, kung fu instructor James Poindexter, 37. She discusses her ordeal with Lyndon Stambler.
About 4 p.m. Debi and I started up a one-way trail. After half an hour we took a single track called Cactus—there's cactus everywhere. It's very fast, with a lot of blind corners. It's kind of like a roller coaster.
Out of my peripheral vision I saw a flash of reddish-brown fur over my right shoulder. An animal came out of the bushes and—bam!—he grabbed my shoulders with his paws. I knew instantly it was a mountain lion. He latched on with his jaws to the back of my neck. "Jesus help me," I said. My first thought was to try to punch the lion. Growing up with a dog, I figured if I could hit him in the nose, maybe he'd let go. As much as I tried, it seemed to have no effect. A few seconds later, Debi came up and grabbed my leg. I was off the edge of the trail when the lion grabbed the left side of my face, one of his top fangs just below the bridge of my nose, the other into my upper lip. His bottom teeth were in my left cheek. As he closed down, I could feel my whole cheek tear away. I didn't feel pain. The lion did not make a sound. I remember thinking, "He just ripped my face off. I want to die." I thought of my husband. He and I are connected at the hip. I thought, "I have to make it."
I was on my back. The lion was trying to get to the front of my throat. Debi held onto my leg, screaming for help, kicking at it. But the lion was determined—and finally he did get me by the front of my throat. When he clamped down, I was no longer able to get any air. I said, "I'm going to die." I remember thinking, "Why don't I see my life flash before my eyes? I don't see any white tunnels. I want to see what all these other people talk about." But I didn't. I passed out.
While Hjelle was unconscious, Nicholls continued to hold on as three male bikers pelted the lion with rocks. It finally worked: The animal released Hjelle and took off but remained nearby. Two of the men helped Nicholls carry her up to the trail; another made a call to 911. After a few moments, she came to.
It was like I was drowning in blood. I tried to breathe and it was just gurgling. I thought if I could sit up, I might be able to actually get some air. Once I did catch my breath, I thought, "I'm in the clear." It never occurred to me that I still might die. But I could feel my left cheek hanging like a flap. I could tell my left eye was messed up. Once I knew I could see out of it, I thought, "Okay, I can deal with this." When the firefighters came, I felt alert.
Hjelle was airlifted to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. James arrived—and started to pass out as he saw blood flowing from her neck. But remarkably, she had no internal injuries.
I'd lost blood, but not enough to require a transfusion. The left side of my face was peeled away and attached only by my nose—which was broken, with damage to the left nostril. My left eye wasn't blinking. There was nerve damage, and most of the muscles on the lower eyelid were torn away. I had damage to nerve branches affecting movement of the lower eyelid and upper lip. There were deep puncture wounds in my neck. The trauma surgeon told me one wound went through tissue to the spinal column. Remarkably none of my neck wounds were life threatening.
Hjelle underwent six hours of reconstructive surgery (more will follow). Doctors also reconnected damaged nerves. The next day the bandages came off.
The first thing I did was ask for a mirror. I was shocked to see my looks completely changed. That was tough. The first time I walked down the hallway to the doctor's office, people stared at me. I did feel vulnerable. Guys look at women in a certain way, and now the stares were for a different reason. Now I'm used to it. The thing is, I know my husband has unconditional love for me. I know he loves me for who I am, even with the scars. One day in the hospital I cried for a minute or two; I cried for James because of the stress on him in dealing with it. But honestly, it's brought us closer together.
You think you know where your life is going. One instant changed everything. Now I feel as though God has given me a mandate to speak to groups, particularly preteen girls. There is so much pressure on them to look a certain way. What's important isn't whether you look like a movie star but who you are inside.
I've been biking many times since the attack. Certain things trigger fear, but I'm feeling great emotionally now. Not to say a month from now I won't have a total breakdown. But right now I'm just so thankful to be alive. Literally to have been in the jaws of death and live is incredible.
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