Todd Schwartz 2016-02-09 05:33:40
After a grizzly bear took his eyesight and very nearly his life, Dan Bigley relearned living and rediscovered community. For the first 25 years of his life, Dan Bigley was lucky. Born into a loving and financially well-off family, he grew up relishing the outdoors and traveling the world. He spent much of his time hiking, climbing and skiing in the backcountry. He was lucky to be healthy and strong, living in a cabin in the ski town of Girdwood, Alaska, where he could watch the light and storms on 20,310-foot-high Denali from his deck and ski, hike and fish right out the back door. After a youth filled with wandering in the wilds and a ski-bum lifestyle, Bigley had a job he loved, taking troubled kids on outdoor trips. He had a close and likeminded circle of friends. And, after a yearlong crush on a woman named Amber, he had at last gone on a momentous date with her. Life and luck, and now perhaps romance as well, were solidly on Dan Bigley’s side. Until they weren’t. It was a glorious sunny day, July 14, 2003, when Dan Bigley got horrifically, life-alteringly unlucky. He awoke that day, kissed Amber goodbye (that first evening had become a first morning), and packed up to do one of his favorite things in life: go fishing with a buddy on the Russian River, out on the Kenai Peninsula. The red salmon run was on, a favorite of local fly fishers—and an irresistible draw for the area’s other dominant population: bears. With his dog Maya and friend John, Bigley fished all day. At twilight, they decided to try one more spot close to the Russian River Campground. Bigley was no stranger to grizzlies. He’d seen them many times and gave them total respect. Fortunately, their usual behavior was to see a human and wander away, or better yet run away. Bigley’s biggest fear was that some gun-toting fisherman would see a bear, freak out and open fire in the vicinity. So when the bear came into sight on the trail, 30 feet away, back to them, Bigley didn’t panic. He grabbed Maya by the scruff of the neck and the two men stood side-byside, hoping to look larger. But this bear was different. Both men knew it right away. It didn’t move off. It turned, raised its hackles and grunted. Bigley knew they had to get out of there fast. They backpedaled calmly, reversing course on the trail and planning to take the long way back to the car. When the bear was safely out of sight and they’d covered some distance, they relaxed and picked up the pace. Suddenly the alders in front of them were shaking violently. Had the bear circled around to cut them off? Bigley had never seen anything like that. This time, there was no calm backpedaling. They turned and hoofed it in the other direction. In seconds, the bear that they thought was now behind them exploded around the corner in front of them. Head lowered, ears flat, eyes yellow as summer suns, the grizzly shot past Maya and John as they dove off the trail and came straight for Bigley. Running was pointless, as a grizzly’s top speed is as much as eight miles per hour faster than world-record sprinter Usain Bolt. Bigley only had time to attempt a dive into the bushes. He didn’t make it. The next few minutes were a brutal slow-motion nightmare of searing pain, attempts to play dead, primal screams, then blissful unconsciousness. Bleeding from his leap off the trail, John heard the awful sounds of his buddy being killed and managed to run toward the campground for help. At one point he stopped to listen. He yelled Bigley’s name, but heard only Maya barking in the distance. After Bigley passed out, the bear had moved a few yards away to wait and watch, common behavior when neutralizing a threat. Then, just barely, John thought he heard Bigley moan. So did the bear, which turned out to be a sow with two cubs nearby. It attacked again. This time it flipped Bigley over on his back. The last thing Dan Bigley would ever see was the bear standing over him, pinning him down. He could feel its breath on his face. The bear cocked its head sideways and bit down on the center of Bigley’s face. The jaws of an adult grizzly, it has been calculated, can bite with enough force to crush a bowling ball. By comparison, Bigley’s head was like the eggshell of a tiny, delicate bird. Bigley heard crunching, then a pop, then nothing. He remembers floating in pleasant blue light. He remembers seeing friends and family. He remembers making a very conscious decision not to die. A New Life Over the phone, the ER doctor couldn’t even find words to describe Bigley’s injuries to the on-call surgeon. “It’s terrible, just horrible,” she said. “Please, we need you to come.” The EMT’s report put it more succinctly: “Upper nose, eyes, forehead anatomy unrecognizable.” The surgeon, Dr. James Kallman, was a Fulbright scholar who had completed a fellowship in facial reconstruction, but he had been on his own in practice for less than a year. By his own admission, he was still pretty green at the time. He wondered briefly if he could handle this. Bigley’s CT scan revealed bones shattered into tiny pieces, eye sockets crushed, his palate attached to nothing—and when he was taken into the operating room, Kallman could see that Bigley’s brain was exposed to the point that part of it had herniated down into the space where his nasal cavity used to be. His eyes were pulled so far forward that both optic nerves had snapped. “I must have been standing there with a stunned look for a little too long,” Kallman would say later, “because the senior OR nurse looked at me and said ‘Doctor, would you like to shave the hair?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s where we’ll start. We’ll start by shaving the hair.’” It took eight hours of surgery just to clean the wounds and sew up the skin. Then Bigley was put into a medically induced coma and the wait began to see if he would survive. With his brain tissue exposed and cerebrospinal fluid leaking out, infection was Kallman’s biggest fear. Against all odds, and with a fair bit of his good luck kicking back in, Bigley held on. Ten days after the attack, the swelling had receded enough to allow Kallman and a team of surgeons to begin a long series of reconstructive procedures, including rebuilding the floor of his skull to hold in his brain, shaping new facial features with titanium plates and mesh and wiring his jaw in place so his teeth would line up. It’s impossible to overstate the amount of training and skill that went into putting the puzzle of Dan Bigley’s face back together. But nothing, of course, could be done to save his eyes. Slowly, Bigley was awakened from his coma, and then Kallman told him he was blind. Too drugged up to have much of an emotional reaction—that would come later—Bigley didn’t really understand that his new life had begun. As he points out in his compelling book “Beyond the Bear,” (with Debra McKinney, Globe Pequot Press), he was going to have to learn to live all over again. Lucky Again “I’ll take Lions over bears anytime,” Bigley says in his Anchorage office, 12 years and a few months removed from the bear. As clinical director of Denali Family Services, Bigley is the second-in-command at this 150-employee community mental health center, which serves hundreds of children with severe mental disabilities and their families, as well as providing foster care coordination and other wrap-around services in homes and schools. “I used that line recently when I made a presentation to 2,000 people as part of an event for the Alaska Center for the Blind [ACB],” Bigley continues. “Most of my contact with Lions clubs has been indirect over the years, but they are very supportive of the organizations that have been huge in my recovery, including ACB, Guide Dogs for the Blind and [what is now] the Hatlen Center in California, where I went to learn the skills of living independently as a blind person. I thank every Lion for their commitment to the visually impaired.” Bigley, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Alaska, has something of a unique ability to connect with the traumatized young people he serves. “I think they relate to me in a different way than other therapists,” he says. “What’s unique about my trauma is that I wear it publicly on my face—you usually wouldn’t know just by looking at our clients that they have been wounded.” For Bigley, the road back from his wounds probably began before he could speak. Another lucky unlucky man from Juneau saw the news about the attack and immediately flew north to be at Bigley’s bedside. Back in 1959, Lee Hagmeier was the first, and until Bigley, the only person known to have been blinded by a bear. The parallels were close: both attacks happened in the Alaska woods to a young fisherman and lover of the great outdoors. Both were bitten so hard that their brains were exposed and their eyes destroyed. Probably, given the era, it’s even more remarkable that Hagmeier survived. Bigley listened, jaw wired shut, as Hagmeier told him how he had been devastated, then motivated. Hagmeier went on to earn his Ph.D., continued fishing and hiking, became a runner and kayaker and enjoyed a long career and happy marriage. “To have Lee there meant a lot to me,” Bigley remembers. Although it took awhile to sink in, Hagmeier was the only person who could credibly tell him it would all be OK: “Here was someone, the only person in the world, in fact, who really understood what I was going through. We call ourselves a Tribe of Two.” While he was there, Hagmeier taught Bigley’s friends how to physically lead a blind person without stepping on their dignity (you don’t grab them and steer, they take your elbow and follow). He also gave Bigley his first post-bear assistive tech: a talking watch, so that when he awoke he would know whether it was day or night. After a month in the hospital and numerous surgeries, Bigley grew strong enough to go to his family’s vacation home in the hills above San Juan Bautista, California, to rest and recover. He left behind his cabin, most of his friends, and Amber, who was going to have to wait some time for a second date. “Just because my life is over,” Bigley, still wrapped in depression, told her before he left, “doesn’t mean yours has to be. I’m setting you free.” “Back then,” Amber remembers, “I was just making things up as I went along. When I went to the hospital that first day, everyone in his family was looking at me like ‘who the hell are you?’ In the middle of that initial concern and confusion it was tough to figure out how to be there for him. When he left the state it was hard, but I decided to take a step back.” Little by little, by fits and starts, Bigley’s life and luck returned. Reshaped and reimagined, certainly, but returned. And the generosity of Lions began to factor in. During his time in California, he got stronger physically and found an outstanding school to help him learn the specialized skill sets and technologies that enable blind people to live independently. “From the beginning, what is now the Hatlen Center has received vital and continuing support from Lions clubs all over California,” says Laura Hardy, senior vice-president of the Hatlen Center’s parent organization, Junior Blind of America. “They have been very generous to us.” Over the months, Bigley began talking to Amber again on the phone, and they began to rekindle the spark that had first brought them together. Three years after the bear, three years after Bigley urged her to move on, they were married. Bigley moved back to Anchorage, attended college and then grad school, worked hard, and embraced his inevitable role as an inspirational figure. “Oh, I hated that at first,” he says. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m so happy my pain and loss and personal tragedy makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.’ But today my perspective is that’s it’s so cool that I can help others, that I can spin lead into gold.” “Dan is such an inspirational speaker and storyteller,” says Caren Ailleo of the Alaska Center for the Blind, which receives significant support from Lions all over the state. “Right now we’re helping Dan with assistive software and IT tools, and he greatly helped us by being a presenter at our main public event—which was also attended by Mike Brown, the district governor.” “Dan is such a passionate guy,” agrees International Director Lewis Quinn, an Anchorage Lion. “He’s really achieved remarkable things. We’re proud to support ACB, of course, and through our clubs we also do a lot of bear awareness events to help people coexist with Alaska’s wildlife.” Today, Dan Bigley is lucky to be alive, lucky to have Amber, lucky to have two great kids (Alden, 8, and Acacia, 6, who, according to Amber, have become great guides and protectors of their dad’s safety and already understand that people with disabilities can do remarkable things). He’s lucky to have a career with meaning, lucky to still be fishing, hiking and loving the outdoors, lucky to be the sort of person to whom the governor of Alaska awarded the Alaskan of the Year Award in 2008. Lucky to have his faithful guide dog, Anderson (who Bigley suspects may actually be smarter than he is). But you make your own luck, as they say. Ask his friends, colleagues and family how Bigley moved beyond the bear, and they will tell you it’s his strength, humor and smarts. Ask Bigley, though, and he will tell you that, second only to Amber and his kids, the luckiest unlucky man in Alaska has been most powerfully supported and lifted and shaped by community. “I was somewhat cynical when I was young,” Bigley says. “But what I experienced after the bear changed everything. I see the beauty in people now. I’m no hero; my story is one of humanity taking me by the hand. When things got really tough, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, even just dealing with statistics in grad school, what kept me going was the fact that I just couldn’t let down all of the people who have helped me. I’ve learned that our strength is not our independence, it’s our interdependence.” Which is something well understood by another group of lucky people: Lions. Todd Schwartz is a writer living, skiing and mountain biking in Oregon, who has now added bears to his list of phobias.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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