Rescued from the lion’s mouth
By Anne Hjelle as told to Jodi O. Harmon
Thursday, January 8 of this year, was a beautiful day. After work, I joined my friend Debi Nicholls at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Southern California. As members of a riding group, the Trail Angels, we often went mountain biking together.
Our first destination, Four Corners, lay at the top of a steep grade. People stop there to get water and chat. I talked with Heather, another friend. She was headed home. She later told me that the Bible verse taped to the top of her bike, Psalm 27:1, grabbed her attention during that ride.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (NKJV).
She read it and wasn’t sure why she felt concerned. But she felt God was telling her everything was going to be all right.
A fight for life
At the same time, Debi and I were working our way through a more difficult part of the park. I took a left turn onto Cactus Hill Trail ahead of Debi. In most sections it’s about 18 inches wide — it’s rugged terrain with a lot of cactus.
Coming around a corner, I saw a man standing with his bike and another bike propped upright against some bushes.
“I found this abandoned bike,” he said as I passed.
At the time, it meant nothing to me.
It was only a minute later, as I came around a corner over a plateau, that I saw a flash of movement to my right. Mountain lion!
In an instant, the lion attacked.
The Department of Fish and Game will tell you that a mountain lion is capable of taking down an 800-pound animal or jumping over an 8-foot wall with a full-sized sheep in its mouth.
The lion dug its claws into my shoulders and bit into the back of my neck. It slammed me into the ground.
“Jesus help me,” I called out.
The lion clamped down on the side of my head and then the left side of my face. I felt my cheek tear away. I don’t remember the pain, but I’ll never forget the power of his grip.
My first instinct was to hit him in the face. I punched him in the nose with my right arm. It didn’t faze him.
When Debi arrived, she saw the lion dragging me off the trail. She jumped off her bike and threw it at the lion ... and missed. Without any concern for herself, she grabbed my leg. She screamed for help while engaged in a life-or-death tug of war.
The lion backed into a small tree where Debi kicked at him. He didn’t seem to care that she was there.
Sensing he was going to go after my throat, I tucked my chin and turned my left shoulder to the ground so I could roll away. It didn’t work. He clamped down on the front of my throat. And I blacked out.
A gift of peace
Dwayne Jenkins and Mike Castellano were talking with Nils Magnusson, the man we passed on the trail, when they heard our screams for help. Nils and Mike jumped on their bikes and rode down the trail while Dwayne hurried back up the trail to tell Jeremy Collins, who was on the ridge, to call 911. Diego Lopez followed Nils and Mike.
Diego arrived at the scene immediately after Nils and Mike. They began to throw softball-sized rocks at the lion. We were maybe 20 feet off the trail at the time. The first rock hit the lion in his rear flank, the second in the shoulder area, the third closer to the head. That was the one that made him let go and flee. I came to shortly after.
Debi, Diego and Mike carried me up to the trail. I couldn’t get any air. I felt like I was drowning in my own blood.
My face was ripped away. It felt like a slab of meat hanging there. While we waited for the paramedics, Debi sat with her arm through mine to help hold me up. I pulled my arm away to cover my right eye and was relieved that I could see through my left eye.
Before I was airlifted out, Debi called my husband, James, at his martial arts school where he was teaching class. She told him I was being taken to Mission Hospital.
James fought rush-hour traffic all the way to the hospital, not knowing if I was even alive. When he arrived at the hospital, I was in tests and he couldn’t see me. They wouldn’t give him any information on my condition. He ran down the sidewalk to our church, which is on the hospital property, and met with one of our pastors. As Pastor Rex Crane prayed with James, James felt God’s peace come over him. From that point on he wasn’t worried. Life Church is a Spirit-filled church, and we have received so much support from our church family.
I was lying on a gurney with a bandaged face when James walked into the room. We held hands until I went into surgery nearly four hours later. It was such a relief to have him there. We would spend our third anniversary in the hospital.
My wounds were severe. After my first surgery, the trauma surgeon told us that one of the fangs that punctured my neck went through the tissue, touching the spinal column. The lion’s bite came within millimeters of my jugular vein, carotid artery, esophagus, trachea and voice box. It’s a miracle I only suffered muscle and nerve damage and scarring. My surgeries will continue into next year.
I initially worried about the scars and how my husband would deal with them. James says that when he sees my scars it is a reminder of how close he came to losing me.
The experience actually drew James and me closer. We have determined to spend more time together. We’re realizing that each day is time that we never get back.
Police soon tracked down and shot the 2-year-old male mountain lion that nearly killed me. Tragically, they also discovered the partially eaten body of the owner of the abandoned bike. I realized even more clearly that I could have died.
Later, Heather, who had focused on Psalm 27:1 during the attack, noticed verse 2: “When the wicked came against me to eat up my flesh, my enemies and foes, they stumbled and fell” (NKJV).
My pastor, Phil Munsey, has shared with me 2 Timothy 4:17: “The Lord stood with me and strengthened me. And I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (NKJV).
From the very beginning we believed that God would turn this experience into something good. My attack became national news. It was difficult to handle all the media attention. We haven’t even owned a TV the whole time we’ve been married. We’re the last people in the world to desire the spotlight.
But now I have a testimony that reaches people. If this hadn’t happened, I never would have appeared on Larry King Live, Inside Edition or any number of other shows. After appearing on Larry King, we received 15,000 to 20,000 hits on my Web site. Our site (www.annehjelle.com) is packed with Bible verses and we have received hundreds of e-mails from people saying it touched them.
My first time back on a mountain bike was three months after the attack. At first, certain trails triggered fear — narrow trails with a lot of brush, similar to the one I was attacked on. I had to pray through it.
God has miraculously healed me emotionally. That was the first concern my pastor prayed for when he visited me. James and I know God has shown himself through my positive outlook and lack of nightmares. That can only be God.
I’m also very blessed that I only have facial injuries. Sometimes I even forget what my husband and friends see; they don’t treat me any differently, and that has made it easier for me. It’s only when I’m out in public that some people look at me differently.
Through this experience I’ve learned lessons that will carry me through anything. First, you have to rely on God to get through tough times, large or small. Second, the solution to your problem is going to depend on what is inside you. People preach, “Looks don’t matter; it’s the heart.” Now I can say for certain that I believe that to be true.
Anne Hjelle, a personal trainer, and her husband, James, live in Mission Viejo, Calif. Jodi O. Harmon is advertising coordinator for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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