ST. GEORGE — He's missing a piece of his leg, his arm was recently amputated and the tendons in his thumb were torn from pressing so hard on his attacker's eyeball, but Elder Paul Richard Oakey said he plans to move on from a day that two lions almost took his life.
"Accidents happen. We don't plan them. They just happen," said the 20-year-old whose humility is visible from across a room. "I wasn't planning on getting attacked by lions. It happened and I'm just going to move on."
Oakey said that a group of missionaries from an area he was serving in, in the Guatemala City South Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decided to visit a zoo in the small mountain town of Esquipulas on July 11. The zoo, which charges an admission of five Quetzals (the equivalent of about 64 cents in the U.S.), boasts about a dozen different varieties of animals in cages at the top of a fairly steep hill that is accessible by a fairly lengthy hike.
It was their "preparation day," or a day off from full-time proselyting, and a chance to explore the culture and scenery of Guatemala.
After a monkey in a cage reached out and grabbed a camera from one of the missionaries, the group moved on to look on a pair of caged lions.
Oakey thought he could get a great picture of his colleagues from the other side of the cage, but had to scale a cement wall, just outside the back of the cage, to be at the same level as the other missionaries.
"I looked down at my camera and out of the corner of my eye, I see a lion coming around the corner real fast," he said. Oakey barely had time to react before the lion had grabbed hold of his right calf.
"I looked up and saw everyone and I just yelled for help," Oakey said, with signs of reliving the attack all over again escaping in his voice. "I put my arm up on the cage to start pulling away from that claw on my calf and a second lion got my arm and I was pinned to the fence."
"I was just pinned there — one lion on my calf, one lion on my arm — and I was just watching them playing with my arm."
All that Oakey could think to do was to punch one of the lions in the head repeatedly, but "that didn't work because its a lion and that doesn't hurt them," he said. "So I started gouging its eyeball out because that's the only thing I could do by myself to free myself."
Between the gouging, another elder trying to shove a pole in the lion's mouth and the zookeeper firing a gun into the air, one of the lions released Oakey's arm and he fell backwards, detained only by the other lion's tight grasp on his leg.
When that lion went for a better bite of Oakey's upper thigh, Oakey fell to the ground, with others in his group there to catch him.
"The first thing I said is, 'don't tell my mom,'" Oakey recalled. He now laughs at the thought that his mother finding out would be the worst outcome. His second though was of his own camera, as he wanted to document the unusual experience he'd had in a foreign land — just as he had done on his blog throughout the previous 19-months of his mission in Guatemala.
Oakey was taken via ambulance on a bumpy, dirt road to a Guatemalan hospital that was six hours away. He remembered all of it until he got to the hospital and then he blacked out from extreme blood loss.
He's been told that nearly 60 percent of his blood was drained from the various traumatic injuries. And fortunately for Oakey, there was a vascular surgeon randomly at the rural hospital that day who was able to transfuse some blood almost immediately. Each of the other missionaries had lined up to donate.
Oakey spent four days in the hospital in Guatemala and was then brought home to Utah for an extended stay at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. In all, he spent 38 days at the hospital and now goes back twice weekly for physical therapy.
"We gotta get me back in business," he said. Oakey's arm was kept intact following the attack, but three weeks ago, he chose to have it amputated.
"It was between having my arm just flop there the rest of my life and having a prosthetic, so I'm like, 'cut my arm off,'" Oakey said he told the doctors at IMC. "I want to have something I can use. I don't want to have it in a sling the rest of my life just to have an arm."
The young man said he has a new lease on life after having been through such a tragic occurrence just 53 days ago.
"This is not going to stop me much," he said. "I have a whole life ahead of me and this is just a little stepping stone and I have got to deal with it."
He hopes to share his hope with other accident victims, helping them see the positive in their lives like he has. It's what got him through the last two months and also what keeps him going, he said.
The returned missionary now plans to get a college education and work on writing a book about his adventure, "so everyone can know what I'm about and how I can help them."
"I want to help people," he said.
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