Kenyas Jews rally for Marin woman after hyena attack

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On Aug. 5, Stephanie Simborg was sleeping in the pitch black of the western Kenya wilderness.

The 25-year-old had traveled to Africa to bushwhack her way through the terrain with a 50-pound pack and a mind to learn all she could: How to navigate the country without a map by reading the contours of the land. How to speak a few words to the native people in their language. How to travel in the country without disturbing her surroundings.

One lesson proved most valuable: Never panic in an emergency.

At 5:30 that morning, Simborg slept at a campsite with 19 others, part of a three-week educational program run by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The Novato native could never have predicted what would happen next — a freak attack by a 150-pound hyena, who ripped through the tent Simborg shared with three other women.

"The first thing I remember is just this animal landing on my arm. Everyone was screaming. It was biting my arm over and over again. I thought it was a baboon or monkey because its hands were so human, gripping my arm as it bit my elbow. It was holding onto me, and I couldn't get it off," Simborg recalls.

The next thing Simborg remembers is the sound of the animal's jaws closing as it bit her face. "I remember my whole face just came open."

Simborg, who took the trip as a final fling before starting Harvard Business School, describes the events that followed with the measured tone of someone relating the plot of a movie she's just seen. She talks about how the animal dragged her out of the tent, until it was stabbed through the eye by the Masai warrior traveling with the group, who goes by the name of Robert. Simborg says he saved her life.

After repeated attacks by the warrior, the animal — believed to have been rabid — let her go, and ran off into the wilderness, half dead.

What followed was a 12-hour rescue effort to get Simborg from the remote location in Kenya to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Through the trip out of the wilds on a makeshift stretcher made of bamboo and sleeping bags, Simborg thought about the first-aid class she'd had the day before.

"They taught us that you can die of panic alone. The most important thing is to remain calm, keep control of your vital signs. I just closed my eyes and breathed deeply, and tried to stay calm," says Simborg.

Despite the fact that Simborg suffered deep bites in her arm and face, and was the only one in her group to be harmed by the animal, the former marketing manager for Baby Ruth candy bars says she feels lucky. After all, a blind SOS over the airwaves in Africa found a helicopter and pilot ready to deliver her to the hospital. The surgeon on duty happened to be a well-known Italian physician. And, after a three-hour operation, her face was sewn up and drainage pipes inserted into her arm. Even days later, she was shockingly free of infection from the hyena's bites.

What's more, when word reached Nairobi's small Jewish community that an American Jew was in the hospital, members kept a constant vigil by her bedside.

"There was a steady stream of visitors with food, a hairbrush, soap, flowers. It was amazing. They came not once but every day. It was like I had 10 Jewish moms for the week. I was so touched by them," she says.

Two days after Simborg entered the hospital, her father, a physician who recently started a medical software company, arrived in Nairobi. Six days later, the Simborgs left Africa, but the memory of the Jewish community and their vigilance isn't forgotten.

Simborg may be thousands of miles away from the Jewish strangers who came to her aid, but their spirit is still with her.

In fact, she was so moved by the generosity of the Jews in Nairobi, and their strong sense of community, that she's considering finally having her bat mitzvah this year at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, alongside her mother, Madeleine.

Right now, however, she is staying with her parents in Greenbrae and getting daily check-ups from a plastic surgeon to remove stitches and monitor her for infection. In six months, she will need more surgery on her face, which has gashes on both cheeks and lips. While Simborg was lucky not to damage her nose or eyes, she will have visible scarring on her face and arm, though doctors are hoping it will be minimal.

Just days ago, she looked at herself in the mirror for the first time.

"I think I look disgusting, like a freak. My face is really swollen," says Simborg, matter-of-factly.

Simborg, however, seems more worried about deferring her entrance to Harvard for a year than about her temporarily disfigured face, which she says jokingly "scared kids at the airport." And she doesn't mind having to tell the story over and over to friends and family.

"It's not every day this happens to people," she says. "Everyone I know has had a trauma, a major accident, or suffered a loss. If this is mine, it's pretty unique, and I'm gonna be OK. If this is mine, I'll take it."

Her father isn't surprised by Simborg's optimistic attitude. Instead of sitting home for the year, she is already busy making plans, and hopes to travel. She's even considering another outdoor program with NOLS — but perhaps not as far as Kenya.

"Stephanie is a very well put-together child," he says.

"She's in control, has always been a high achiever. She managed this like she manages everything. That's Stephanie."