October 3, 2003
Hattiesburg woman knows firsthand the horror of a tiger attack
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
HATTIESBURG, Miss.—When news spread that Las Vegas magician Roy Horn had been mauled by a tiger, most people could only imagine his terror.
Kellie Griffin knows the horror firsthand.
On March 14, 2001, a tiger attacked Griffin while she was at work at the Kemper Park Zoo in Hattiesburg, forcing the amputation of her lower right leg.
“Once I read the story about Horn, I pictured what happened and I felt the way he must have felt,” Griffin said.
She also identified with Horn’s plea that the tiger not be destroyed. After her own attack, Griffin made a similar request of her rescuers, said her husband Jason Griffin. “She was lying there on a bed with her leg chewed to pieces and she said: ‘Do not hurt the tiger. He was just doing what tigers do.’ ”
It was that love and acceptance of animals that first drew Griffin to zoo keeping, and it’s what has brought her back. To the amazement of many, Griffin returned to her job at the zoo, where the tiger that almost killed her still resides.
“When I first came back, I couldn’t make it out of the office I was so scared,” she said. “But now it doesn’t bother me.”
“She’s tough as nails basically,” says Jason. “She wasn’t going to let it beat her.”
Just five weeks after the attack, Griffin even mustered the moxie to go on with her wedding plans. She hobbled down the aisle with a walker, and stood on one leg as she pledged her love to the man who literally snatched her from the jaws of death. It was Jason, a paramedic by trade, who ran to her rescue and administered first aid.
“I worked part-time at the zoo and I heard her screaming,” Jason explained.
Jason arrived to find the tiger gnawing at the flesh between Griffin’s right ankle and knee. Somehow, he wrestled her from the tiger and turned his attention to saving her life. “She had an arterial bleed and was pouring blood and it was a matter of getting that stopped. I just did what I had to do to be sure she got to the hospital.”
Griffin’s tenaciousness has carried her through the many hours of surgeries, when doctors were trying desperately to save her knee through muscle and tissue transplants. And it kept her going while she worked with Methodist Rehabilitation Center prosthetist Jamie McPherson to learn how to use her artificial leg. McPherson is a former University of Southern Mississippi defensive end who lost his leg in an on-the-field injury.
“Kellie’s first goal was to be able to walk and feel safe and balanced,” said McPherson, who works out of Methodist Rehab’s Orthotics and Prosthetics office in Hattiesburg. But it wasn’t long before Griffin came to McPherson, also a below-the-knee amputee, and asked: “Do you run?” When he said yes, her response was: Show me how.
“You really have to think about it to run on a prosthesis,” McPherson said. “The feet that are made for running store energy and actually spring back. For someone who has never worn a prosthesis, it is like having one leg on a pogo stick or a trampoline. You are thrown off balance until you learn the response of the foot.”
McPherson showed Griffin a few steps, and a few weeks later she started running on a treadmill. “ She is so much farther ahead than I thought she would be,” McPherson said. “It took me months to feel natural when running.”
Griffin said the fact that McPherson has a similar injury gives him a lot of credence in her eyes. “He can show me stuff like nobody else can,” she said. And she’s eager to learn.
So far, she has mastered running and swing dancing. “And I climbed a ladder not that long ago,” she says.
Griffin said McPherson has helped her accomplish her goals by providing the right equipment. Her first prosthesis was chosen for its durability. It stands up to the rigors of her work at the zoo, and is the leg she wears for sports activities.
Griffin also recently received a “dress-up” foot, one that allows her to wear high heels again. As is her style, she wasted no time perfecting her stride with the new prosthesis.
“For someone to walk on a prosthesis with a three-inch heel height is beyond the laws of biomechanics, and she makes it look easy,” McPherson said.
Griffin’s latest goal is to ride a bike, an achievement that all who know her predict she’ll master sooner or later.
“She amazes me the amount of drive she has,” McPherson said. “She’s an inspiration. When people hear about everything she has been through, it helps them push themselves harder.”
Recent reports have credited Horn with similar stamina, and Griffin said her thoughts are with him. “I hope he gets better soon,” she said. “I know how long it takes to recover.”