Kristen Yaldor looked down at her leg, mangled and gashed open. She sat in a canoe that had been rowed to shore, and the beast that had attacked her was out of sight, somewhere in the Zambezi River. She never saw its face.
It was Dec. 1, 2018. Her 37th birthday.
Ten minutes earlier they had set off for a leisurely day of nature photography near Victoria Falls in western Zimbabwe — Kristen; her husband, Ryan; another tourist; and two guides from a company called Wild Horizons, which advertised the river tour online as a “beginner-friendly” venture on “calm waters.”
They hadn’t even started snapping photos when one of the guides called for them to paddle toward the left bank. Then something broke from the water beneath the Yaldors’ canoe — a broad, rocklike back — and she hurtled through the air and into the river.
She popped to the surface and saw Ryan swimming to shore. She was maybe five strokes away from land. But something clamped down on her right leg, yanked her underwater and tossed her side to side like a dog with a chew toy.
It didn’t hurt, she would say later, at least not immediately. Instinct took over, settling with a calm she’d honed scuba-diving with sharks: Hold your breath. Don’t panic.
She reached for the animal’s jaw. She knew she wouldn’t be strong enough to dislodge herself, but as it loosened its grip, she thought she must have spooked it.
Now, on the shore, the pain started to come through. She didn’t know yet, but she had a broken femur. She tried to keep her heart rate low — she couldn’t tell how badly she was bleeding. One of the guides applied a tourniquet. Ryan worked his cell phone, trying to get an emergency helicopter to the river.
All her life, she had moved at her preferred speed: perpetually ahead of schedule, traveling the world, physically adept on land and under the water. Now she couldn’t do much but watch as people stopped on the safari trail across the river, taking a break from watching animals to watch her.
She borrowed Ryan’s phone in between his calls. It was 2 a.m. in the U.S., but her mother picked up anyway.
“Do you want me to sing you happy birthday?”
“No, mom,” Kristen said. “I got attacked by a hippo.”
• • •
A bit about the bite of the common hippopotamus: News reports often cite it as being powerful enough to snap a canoe in half.
In the moment before a hippo bites, it may open its jaw to a 150-degree angle — nearly a straight line, up-and-down — and uncover three-dozen teeth, among them brutal, primeval-looking sets of canines and incisors. The rare pieces of medical literature on treating hippo attack survivors include phrases like “open femur fracture” and “severely traumatized soft tissues.”
In Africa, hippos kill an estimated 500 people a year. As adults, they can weigh between 3,000 and 9,900 pounds. Paul Templer, perhaps the most well-known hippo attack survivor, was nearly swallowed whole by one of the huge mammals; he emerged with gaping chest wounds and ultimately lost an arm but went on to work as a motivational speaker. As he told The Guardian in 2013, “time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.”
The weeks that followed Kristen’s hippo attack were a marathon of hospitals and surgeries. A local hospital offered tetanus shots, morphine and an X-ray on a “very old X-ray machine” that misdiagnosed her femur injury as a hairline fracture. Then a trauma unit in Johannesburg — surgeries every other day for two weeks, her leg wound open until two types of bacteria from the river water subsided. Then 36 hours on a cramped medical flight as it made a seven-stop U-shape from Africa to Florida, and then a week and a half at Tampa General Hospital to replace the rod in her leg and get a skin graft. Ryan got tired of hearing that their insurance “hasn’t authorized this yet.” Kristen got tired of lying on her back.
Her doctors had never treated injuries like these, inflicted in this particular way, she said. They couldn’t tell her what to expect because they didn’t know what to expect.
But she cannot remember specifically ever being scared. Her family and friends made her laugh: They brought Hungry Hungry Hippos and a hippo-emblazoned T-shirt and joked that the hippo just wanted to give her a birthday kiss.
In Zimbabwe, news reports of the attack, and accounts by the tour company, characterized her as a reckless tourist who got too close to the wildlife. Kristen understood that they wanted to protect their business, but assertions that she hadn’t followed the guides’ directions aggravated her: As she paddled toward shore, then tried to swim there, she was doing nothing but following their directions. (Wild Horizons’ website no longer features a guided canoe tour option, but it advertises its “Adventure Pass” with a photo of a hippo bursting from the water, jaws agape.)
Back home in Odessa, driven to research the animal that could have killed her, Kristen quickly learned of its reputation as the world’s deadliest large land mammal. Hippos are aggressive, territorial and far faster and stronger than their cartoonish public image — they’ll attack fishermen and battle crocodiles. As much as anything, she felt lucky.
“I’m here,” she remembered thinking at the time. “I have a leg. It may not look the same, but it’s here.”
• • •
Life after the hospital was “very slow,” Kristen said. This, for her, was strange. She had graduated high school early, graduated college early, bought her first house at 21. She ran three to 10 miles a day, biked, swam, worked a day job as a project manager, did renovation work with Ryan in her off hours. She bungee jumped and skydived.
“I don’t care how many surgeries it takes,” she told her doctors. “There are certain functions in life that I feel are, for lack of a better word, requirements.”
It took her two days to stand on her own and walk a few steps. She couldn’t go to the bathroom without help. She couldn’t drive for six months. She couldn’t make a meal, carry the bowl to the couch and sit down to eat by herself.
She progressed from a walker to crutches to a cane. In physical therapy, she slowly regained the use of her damaged leg, alternating legs with the same exercise as if to fool one into following the other.
“It’s really amazing what you see your body go through and how you need to somewhat trick your mind into knowing what to go through,” she said.
She’s had several more surgeries — 14 in total, as of Dec. 16 — and many caused setbacks to her mobility or strength. After one damaged part of her skin graft, she waited months to let the skin regrow on its own.
She did an Animal Planet show, I was Prey. She got a little more patient. She noticed that small things around her looked a little prettier than before: Soon after she got out of the hospital, when she was finally allowed to shower for the first time in more than a month, the mundane technology amazed her.
Wow! she thought. Water all over your body at once!
Ryan signed her up for a Disney charity 5-K, which will take place in January. She’ll raise money for muscular dystrophy research. She can’t jog yet — “It’ll be a brisk walk,” she said.
Earlier this month, she and Ryan went to a bike shop, where she found one bike she could ride despite her still-limited mobility. The experience was frustrating in a sense — her shopping was bound by the constraints of her movement. But when she got home, she immediately went for a four-mile ride.
It was Dec. 1, 2019. Her 38th birthday.
It was good to feel the breeze in her hair.