ASHEBORO, N.C. — The semester is winding down with final papers to write but Kiersten Yow, the UNC Chapel Hill sophomore, is already wise beyond her years. Keys to her past are on her laptop. One sticker says "I don't like sand." Another sticker shows a caricature of a child in a shark's mouth with the caption "Stay positive" which is what she did after surviving a shark attack.
"It definitely gave me a greater appreciation for life," said Yow.
Her life could've ended in 2015 when she was 12 years old. The Asheboro girl was playing in waist-deep water at Oak Island when a bull shark pounced.
"At one point, it let go of my leg and got onto my arm, and came around and faced me. That's when it was in front of me and that's when I started punching it with this hand," explained Yow.
She managed to break free after the shark dragged her under.
"I saw a bloody mess. As I was walking out of the water, I looked to check to see if my hand was still there and it wasn't."
Bystanders rushed to help. One person used a boogie board leash to help stop the bleeding. Yow spent two months at UNC Children's Hospital where doctors saved her left leg. She's undergone more than 20 surgeries since then.
Yow had to relearn how to walk and master everyday tasks with just one hand, like eating, cooking, and playing. Today, she continues to work on rehabilitating her leg by running every day.
"My leg is still weak because I'm missing parts of muscle and hamstring so my knee sometimes gives out."
Adjusting is still difficult with people staring at her prosthetic.
"I really don't like it. I really hate it especially because I'm a very introverted, anxious person.
The nightmares subsided but the fear of water remains. For the first time in nearly eight years, she recently stepped into the ocean.
"It's very scary. I went in and out a few times. It was scary every time. I'm constantly looking at my feet and around me... Terrifying, when I get to the point where I can't see my feet anymore, that's when the fear gets the strongest."
She refuses to let the shark attack hold her back. She graduated from high school with a 4.5 GPA. Familiarity is one of the reasons she chose to go to college in Chapel Hill. It's where she was treated.
"Sometimes I drive past [UNC Children's Hospital] and I'm like that's where I was then and here I am now. I can see the growth of the changes that have happened since then."
She's majoring in psychology and philosophy with plans to help others deal with trauma as a future therapist, as she copes with her own. She admits she's still traumatized today and could be for the duration of her life. But she's made tremendous strides. She's grateful and grounded with each step.
"I used to have dreams that I'd be able to walk again so sometimes I would be like this is what I always wanted at one point in time so it's cool to appreciate that."