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Victim of bear attack rebuilds face

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2002

Kenneth Horton lay in a Seattle hospital bed last month trying to muster the courage to look in a mirror.

Days earlier a brown bear with a cub had mauled him on Admiralty Island. The sow swatted his face, crushed his left cheekbone and ripped out the muscles and nerves. When the bear was done, Horton was holding half his face in his hand.

Horton was rescued and medevaced to a Seattle hospital, where surgeons reattached the skin but postponed surgery on the crushed bone and lost tissue. Horton knew his cheek was caved in and that he could not move the left side. It took several days to find the courage to face a mirror.

"Finally I got brave enough to look. I seen a pretty torn-up me," said Horton, 52, from his home in the Mendenhall Valley.

"It was kind of like my face looks now - a half a smile and a half a nothing. I was pretty disgusted with the way I looked."

He hopes to get his smile back this week.

Horton flew to Seattle today for reconstructive surgery on Friday. He said doctors plan to take bone from his head and screw it to his face to reconstruct his cheekbone. Then surgeons will take muscles and nerves from his leg or arm to rebuild the lost tissue, said Horton, who hopes to return to Juneau early next week.

Doctors are "pretty optimistic" he eventually will regain most of the movement in his face but warned him to expect some scarring, Horton said.

"I'm not going to be entering no beauty contests," he said. But "I know I'll at least be able to smile, even though it might be kind of a Dick Cheney smile."

Horton, a seasonal worker for Juneau Ready Mix who lives on savings in winter, is concerned about his mounting medical bills. He has health insurance, but he's worried it will not cover the entire expense. He hopes people will help by making donations to an account at First Bank. A bank spokeswoman said people can make donations by specifying the Kenneth Horton account.

"Financially it's whacking me hard," he said.

However, Horton carries no grudge against the bear and considers the experience mostly positive. The attack attracted a lot of media attention on the West Coast, prompting other bear-mauling victims to contact him, said Horton, adding a Washington man who lost his eye to a bruin visited him at the hospital.

"I feel like I'm a member of an elite club now," said Horton, noting bear maulings in North America are rare. "But it was a pretty rough initiation."

When he left the hospital for Juneau, people at the Seattle airport recognized him from news stories and made him feel like a celebrity. When he went to the airport bar, patrons bought him beers and a ticket agent upgraded him to first class, Horton said.

"Everybody knew who I was," he said. "I was drawing a crowd."

Horton said the attack made him a better person.

"I don't recommend anyone going through it, but I feel lucky," he said. "It made me nicer to people and more sensitive. I just really appreciate people so much. I appreciate being alive."

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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