Surviving an alligator attack

Where it all began: Deise revisits the place where she was attacked by an alligator (picture by Bruno Fernandes, courtesy of Deise Nishimura).
Where it all began: Deise revisits the place where she was attacked by an alligator (picture by Bruno Fernandes, courtesy of Deise Nishimura).

"I, Deise Nishimura, Survivor Of An Alligator Attack!"

When you are living the life of your dreams in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and then the unimaginable happens. You are attacked by an alligator. That is what happened to Deise Nishimura. She fought for her life and survived. And after her having recovered she returned to the place she loved: The Amazon. Here is her amazing story. 


My New Life In The Amazon

I was born in São Paulo/Brazil and later-on moved to the UK to go to University. I always loved the outdoors and always knew I wanted to work with animals, so it was only natural to choose Biology for my degree. After my studies, I was offered an internship in the Amazon to work with pink river dolphins. It was like my dream job in my dream location. It couldn’t be more perfect. So before long I moved back to my country and study the animals I loved. 


It was 2009, and I was a fearless 25-year-old biologist full of dreams, wanting to conquer the world. I moved to the Mamirauá Nature Reserve, 600km up the Solimões river from Manaus. There, I lived in a floating house with another intern and a local guy who was our boat driver. The nearest town was about 40 minutes by boat. We would only go there once or twice a month to save up on gasoline. So most of our time we were surrounded by nature, just how I liked it. I had to learn how to fish, to maneuver a boat, to collect fruits from the trees, to make my own chocolate from cocoa seeds. To be honest, I couldn’t be any happier and more independent.


On December 30, 2009 - nine months after I had moved there - I was alone in the house as the other intern and the boat driver were out doing some dolphin sightings. It was the dry season, so the water level in the river was very low and the day felt very hot. I started to clean a fish we had caught the previous day. I was on the outer deck of our house and was throwing fish scales back into the water. I had my legs crossed as I was sitting there.


The next thing I remember was seeing an alligator head right in front of me. And then I was dragged into the water to the bottom of the river. I was twisted many times and I clearly remember feeling like I was in a blender. The water there was pretty murky so I didn’t have the faintest idea how deep I was. The first thought shooting through my head was that this was the end. Initially I didn’t even try to fight back. I just prayed that God would take me to heaven and forgive all my sins.


Then, as I was being twisted like a puppet, I remembered watching a documentary where a guy was attacked by a shark and hit its nose, which was its most sensitive part. I thought, what is the most sensitive part of an alligator? So I put my hand behind me and felt the alligator’s head where I found two soft holes. I’m still not sure if it was the eyes or the nose, but I poked these two holes with my fingers with all my strength. I even noticed later on that I broke my nails from the force I put in those holes. 


After that, the alligator let go of me. I swam up to breathe and realised the water around me was full of blood. Because it was the dry season, the concentration of piranhas and other alligators was higher than during the rest of the year. Even the local population, who normally bathes in the river, didn’t go into the water. They know that  during this period animals are more concentrated and very aggressive. So I quickly swam back to the house and tried to pull myself back to the deck from where the alligator had pulled me into the river.


At this point, I realized the alligator had taken my leg. It was a shocking sight and I’ll save you from the details here, but let’s just say it looked exactly as it looks in horror movies. The deck was too high to climb up so I swam to the front of the house where there was a ramp where we parked our boats. I laid there and screamed for help, but no one came. 


I tried to stand up but lost balance. So I crawled and rolled on the floor until I reached our radio inside the house. This radio was connected to all radios in the reserve. I called for help and heard many people speaking but to be honest, I don’t really remember anything they said. After lying on the floor by myself for a while, a fisherman showed up as he had heard me screaming earlier on. He later told me he nearly fainted but held on when he saw I was still alive. I asked him use his T-shirt to do a tourniquet on my leg. He only placed the T-shirt on top of my leg as he couldn’t bear that sight. So, I tried to do the tourniquet myself.


At this point, another boat arrived, from a tourist lodge nearby with some of my friends who worked as tourist guides in that lodge. One of them had first aid training and quickly did a better tourniquet using some ropes he found in the house. I was in shock but still reasoning perfectly well, even remembering asking someone to turn the stove off as I had beans in the pressure cooker.


They placed me on a mattress and onto their boat and started driving to the nearest hospital in Tefé city. With the tourist boat, the ride would have taken over an hour. As we were on our way, a speedboat met us in the middle of the river and I was transferred there. We finally reached the city and I was taken to the public hospital by ambulance. I was awake the whole time and I remember thinking about pain inside the speedboat. At the hospital they offered me morphine. Other than that, I don’t really remember feeling any pain at all.



My New Life In The Hospital

I went into surgery and only woke up in the middle of the night, my friend that rescued me sitting on my bedside. I remember wearing a nappy and feeling pretty embarrassed. I then woke up again with my boss and my parents in the room. Call me crazy, but I was actually really excited to tell what had happened and was so happy to be alive. I told everyone I would wear a prosthetic leg and would be walking very soon to return to the Amazon. My parents were not impressed.


After 10 days in Tefé, I was transferred by plane to São Paulo, where I could get better medical care and where my parents lived. I had some friends from São Paulo that flew to the Amazon just to help with all the logistics and make sure I was ok during the flight. In fact during my stay in different hospitals I had visits all the time so I didn’t really had time to think properly what had happened.  



My New Life In My New Self

It was when I went home that I fully understood the obstacles and challenges I would be facing from then on. And all the things I wouldn’t be able to do anymore. I was a fully independent girl, living my dream in the wild. And then, suddenly, I was trapped in a bedroom, in the concrete city, fully dependable on others to help me with the simplest tasks such as going to the bathroom.


On many days, I had to repeat a saying my friend used to tell me in the Amazon: “1,2,3… get over it!” And that’s what I did. Whenever I felt a bit down, I stopped thinking about it and never let myself feed sorry for myself.


I started to go to a clinic which had specialised in amputations. That was an essential step in my recovery. And my mom. It was a completely new world to me and my parents and seeing fellow amputees living totally independent, going to rock concerts and rafting in Nepal really lifted our spirits. I couldn’t wait to put on my prosthesis and start walking again.


But to my disappointment, it was a very slow process. Six months into my recovery, after endless physical therapy sessions, I was told I would have to do another surgery as the bone had grown inside my muscle (I never knew bones grow!). It was so depressing to think I would have to go through the whole process again. But I couldn’t walk with my prosthesis with that pain so I had no other choice. A month later I was able to put on my prosthesis for the first time, ready to start learning how to walk again.



My New Self In The Amazon

But the thought of going back to the Amazon never left me. And I had the opportunity to go back there eleven months after my accident. I was invited to take part in a TEDx event and planned to go back to the Mamirauá Nature Reserve and to the dolphin project for one month after that. I was walking with my prosthetic leg by then, but still needed to lean on one crutch to move around. It was such an amazing experience to go back there. It was like closing that chapter of my life. A chapter that I had left open for so long. I managed to drive a boat, to help around the house, to take measurements of dolphins and to be part of the project again. It was so fulfilling and I felt like that fearless, independent girl again, wanting to conquer the world. I ditched my crutch and managed to walk with no assistance there in the Amazon. 



My New Self In The New World

After that experience I realised I still could do everything I used to do before. I just needed to think how to adapt. It might take longer, it might be more difficult, but I can do it. I felt like learning how to scuba dive again, like traveling to South East Asia, like trekking in the forest to look for frogs, like doing the things and dreaming the dreams I had before the amputation. 


And I realised I hadn’t changed much after all. If anything, I was a stronger person, a better person. But deep inside I was still the same old Deise. Just one leg missing, but still Deise.



Watch Deise's TEDx Talk

Deise Nishimura is a biologist who moved to the Amazon in 2009 to study pink river dolphins. She had been living her dream for nine months when she was attacked by an alligator on the porch of her floating house. Deise fought for her life, but had her leg amputated by the alligator. Faced with her new condition, she started to see each limitation as a challenge and has since been learning to live life to the full. You can follow her on Instagram.