From the Editor: Dan Bigley is president of the South Central Chapter of the NFB of Alaska. We recently learned that on September 30, 2008, he was named Alaskan of the Year by the Governor’s Committee on Employment and Rehabilitation of People with Disabilities. Here is part of the press release announcing the honor:
After a grizzly sow attacked him on the Russian River and ER doctors did the best they could, Dan Bigley’s family and friends stood by. A week later, his chances of survival much improved, doctors brought him back from a drug-induced coma to break the news that he was permanently blind. In the five years since the attack, Bigley has created a life that includes a wife and new son, and he is working towards a master’s degree in social work from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. He has an internship working with emotionally disturbed youth and their families. He’s also writing a book about the attack and its impact on his life.
On September 30 in Fairbanks, Bigley received one of ten awards from the Governor’s Committee on Employment and Rehabilitation of People with Disabilities. The ceremony honors individuals, employers, and organizations that have helped advance the employment of people with disabilities.
That was the release. As we were looking online for additional information about this amazing Federationist, we discovered the following story that appeared in the January 20, 2008, edition of the Anchorage Daily News:
Mauling Victim Moves on with Life
Grizzly Took His Sight, but Not His Future
by Debra McKinney
Dr. James Kallman woke the instant his pager went off that summer night in 2003 and soon had an emergency room doctor on the line. "A young guy," she said. "He's been attacked by a bear. Horrible facial trauma." She had a lot of trouble articulating the injury, said Kallman, who was trying to figure out if other specialists should be called in too. "It's terrible. We can't see anything. I just need you to come."
Kallman arrived around two in the morning, took one look at his patient, and froze. Dan Bigley, a twenty-five-year-old backcountry adventurer living in Girdwood, was wrapping up a day of fishing with his dog and a buddy down on the Russian River when a brown bear came at him in a dead run and tackled him to the ground.
Deep puncture wounds covered his legs, arms, back, and shoulders. But worse, much worse, the sow had clamped her jaws around the upper half of Bigley's face and chomped down, then chewed with enough force to turn facial bone to powder. "I've seen people with self-inflicted gunshot wounds," Kallman said, "people who try to commit suicide but fail, and they rip their faces up pretty bad. That's probably the closest thing I'd seen to something like this. His palate wasn't attached to anything, and his brain had herniated down into his nose. So there was nothing holding his brain in his head. A Fulbright scholar before medical school, Kallman had done a five-year residency in head and neck surgery, then a fellowship in facial reconstruction. But he'd been practicing in the real world less than a year.
"So I was still pretty green," he said. His heart was pounding as he looked down at the chaos before him. For an instant he asked himself, Can I do this? "I remember, when we got him into the operating room, I must have been standing there with sort of a stunned look on my face because one of our more senior operating nurses said to me, `Doctor, would you like to shave the hair?' And I remember turning to her and saying, 'Yeah, that's where we'll start. We'll start with shaving the hair.'"
It took eight hours to clean Bigley's wounds and sew up the skin, "to put the puzzle back together," as Kallman puts it. Then came the long wait to see if he'd survive. That first week in the intensive care unit, with Dan's brain open to the world and cerebrospinal fluid pouring out his nose, the biggest fear was that he would get meningitis or some other type of infection. But if anyone could beat the odds, friends and family members keeping vigil at the hospital knew Bigley was the guy.
Since he moved to Alaska, so many things had fallen into place for him. He had a great job working with troubled kids and a brand new love named Amber Takavitz, and he'd just bought a cabin at the top of Bear Valley with a view that went forever. As a backcountry guide he had wilderness first-responder training and used it to tell those who found him how to prevent shock and control bleeding. As he drifted in and out after the attack, he'd helped direct his own rescue. Once Bigley made it through that first week, his chances of pulling through were good. Then doctors had to tell him he was blind.
As is common for trauma of this magnitude, doctors put Bigley in a drug-induced coma to keep him still so he could heal. About ten days after the attack, the swelling had gone down enough for Kallman and a team of other specialists—Louis Kralick, Ray Holloway, and Carl Rosen--to begin a series of reconstructive surgeries. Included in the repair job was reconstructing the floor of the skull to hold his brain, rebuilding facial features with plates and titanium mesh, and wiring his jaw so his teeth would line up.
As for Bigley's eyes, they were there but had been pushed forward so far both optic nerves had snapped. There was, and is, nothing modern science can do about that. Rosen, the ophthalmologist on the team, felt strongly that removing eyes without letting the patient be part of the decision can lead to lingering doubts that it was necessary, Kallman said. So doctors slowly started bringing him out of the coma.
"After they told me," Bigley said, "I dreamt that, while I was waiting for the surgery, I wheeled myself out to the parking lot of the hospital and found one of the doctors’ BMWs, got inside, started it up, cruised down through the grass, and ended up crashing into some river and almost died.
"Another time, I remember, I was in the hospital, and I was sitting on this La-Z-Boy sort of chair, and Dr. Kallman came up and told me I was blind. And I was like, 'You're wrong. I can see you right now,' and I stuck out my hand to shake his. I was like, 'If I'm blind, how come I can see you?'"
Eventually, it started sinking in that his eyes were broken forever and needed to go. "I was still in this barely living sort of…well, I could use a word like exhaustion, but it just doesn't do it justice after fighting for your life for that long. I didn't have a lot of energy to have a big emotional reaction. So I just kind of said, 'All right.' "
Meanwhile, down in Juneau, Lee Hagmeier had spent nearly forty-five years as the only person ever blinded by a bear, as far as anyone knew. As a teenager he was out hunting and fishing when a brown bear charged and bit his face so deeply it exposed part of his brain. He never expected to get a brother. So when he heard about Bigley, he flew up from Juneau to be at his bedside.
"I wanted him to know you can get through it," said Hagmeier, now sixty-five and living in Seattle with his wife Christy. "You can feel awfully alone when something traumatic like this happens." When Hagmeier arrived, Bigley's jaw was wired shut, and he couldn't speak. But he took in everything his visitor said. A so-so student before being blinded in 1959, Hagmeier graduated summa cum laude from Chico State and went on to get a doctorate. This was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act and computers that could talk.
He told Bigley all that. How he kept on fishing, became a runner, did kayak trips, and hiked the Chilkoot Trail. He taught Bigley's friends and family how to guide a blind person without trampling his dignity. And he gave Bigley a talking watch. "That's one of the issues," Hagmeier said. "You wake up and you don't know if it's day or night."
"To have Lee there meant a lot to me," Bigley said. "He was alive and well, and could tell me that things would be OK. Nobody else could tell me that. Because here was somebody who really knew what I was going through. He's the only person to this day who knows, and he's the only person who ever will know. We call ourselves a tribe of two.”
During all this Bigley's relationship with Amber had gotten lost in the shuffle. It had been so new that, when she showed up at the hospital, his family didn't know who she was. "It was hard at first to find my place in all of it," she said. "I was just some girl. So I decided to take a step back."
"I was infantile in my abilities," said Bigley. "I couldn't even lift my hand to my mouth. So the idea of being in a relationship was, wooosh, out the window." That fall, after more than a month in the hospital and several surgeries, he thanked everyone involved and left Alaska. He went home to family in California for rehabilitation, to attend a school for the blind, and to figure out what to do with his life. He got counseling, took long walks on the beach, and spent a lot of time with his thoughts. "There's definitely a lot of dealing with grief and loss," he said.
The first time he came back up for a visit, the season's first snow began to fall. "It just hit me that, if none of this had happened, I would have been grabbing my skis, my boots, and my pack and heading up to the backcountry to find some glacier to ski on. My dog and me, we would have been out there. It really hit me that day, and I just lost it. I mean, you have the typical thoughts: I'm a nice guy, I do nice things. I help people in life. So why me? I don't think that's denial, but it's certainly the opposite of acceptance. So I really started thinking about ways this could help me grow. It didn't take me long to get to the point where I was like, you know, I'm a fighter. I'm a survivor. I'm alive. I'm going to make something good out of this."
"Let's be realistic," said Harlow Robinson, now a close friend but then his boss at Alaska Children's Services. "I know it's been very difficult and challenging and frustrating for Dan. He's no Superman. But he was a truly exceptional person before this accident happened. We called him the golden boy. Everything he touched he made better."
Bigley told Robinson that, while he was lying there on the ground holding his face together, long before the paramedics came and the helicopter arrived, it would have been easiest to die. But he thought of the people he loved and those who loved him and made the decision to live. He promised himself that, if he did, he'd never look back and regret it. The power of will gets a lot of credit for Bigley being alive today. The rest he gives to Kallman, who is now a friend. "Several times I've caught him telling the story in tears," Bigley said. "Everybody from his partners to neurologists to different types of specialists I saw in San Francisco, everybody who's heard the medical details is like, ‘Doesn't make any sense. You shouldn't be here.' I mean, he saved my life. I was Humpty Dumpty, and he put me back together again."
In the four and a half years since the mauling, Bigley and Amber fell in love all over again, moved back to Alaska, got married, and now have a seven-month-old son. With a 4.0, he's working on a master's in social work at the University of Alaska and has an internship at Anchorage Community Mental Health, where he works with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents and families. He's writing a book about what happened to him that day at the river and how it's changed his life. "Unfortunately, I remember quite a bit of the mauling itself, and I'm haunted by a lot of memories," he said. Part of healing for trauma survivors is to put a story to those memories, he said, to create a narrative, to make sense of things. And though writing has been cathartic, reliving the worst day of his life was harder than he thought.
"I noticed the closer I got to having to write about the actual event, the more I kept thinking of fixes to the first part of the book. I realized, after five or six months of writing furiously the beginning of this book, that I was subconsciously avoiding making it to that part."
It began as a gorgeous, blue-sky day. Bigley, his dog, and his buddy headed down the Kenai and fished hard. They had dinner at Gwin's Lodge, then fished hard some more before limiting out. They packed up and had almost reached the stairs below the Grayling parking lot at the Russian River Campground when it happened. The bear came charging around a corner so fast it dipped its shoulder as it made the turn. It swiped at Bigley's dog, swiped at his friend, then came for him. The last thing he ever saw was the eyes of the bear that took his own.