ANCHORAGE - 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 2 in the morning, took one look at his patient and froze.
Dan Bigley, a 25-year-old backcountry adventurer living in Girdwood, Alaska, 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.
Kallman's 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 moving to Alaska, so many things had fallen into place for him. He had a great job working with troubled kids, 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 10 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 doctor's BMWs, got inside, started it up and 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 45 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 65 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.
"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."
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.